Thursday November 26th, 2015 11:35PM

Senate votes to tighten sanctions on Iran

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate endorsed stringent new sanctions on Iran's energy and shipping sectors in a fresh attempt to hobble the Islamic Republic's economy and hamper its nuclear ambitions.

Ignoring White House opposition spelled out just hours before the vote, the Senate voted 94-0 on Friday for a package of punitive measures that would end sales and transactions with various Iranian domestic industries.

The sanctions build upon penalties that Congress has passed - and President Barack Obama has implemented - that target Tehran's financial and energy sectors.

Officials in Washington argue that the sanctions have undermined Tehran's economy and robust oil sales, thwarting its suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

The overwhelming bipartisan vote on an amendment to a sweeping, $631 billion defense bill reflected fears about the Iranian threat and the United States' unwavering support for its closest Mideast ally Israel.

Shortly before the vote, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, urged senators to back the sanctions.

"We must continue to apply unremitting pressure on Tehran until it complies with its international obligations and ends its pursuit of nuclear weapons," AIPAC officials wrote in a letter.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who have shepherded sanctions bills through Congress, sponsored the latest package that also would close a major loophole - the ability of Iran to circumvent sanctions and barter oil for precious metals. Turkey has been bartering gold for oil.

"The most recent sanctions are working toward crippling Iran's economy but Iran hasn't quit trying," Menendez said on the Senate floor.

The sanctions would designate Iran's energy, port, shipping and ship-building sectors as "entities of proliferation" and sanction transactions with these areas. The legislation also would penalize individuals selling or supplying commodities such as graphite, aluminum and steel to Iran, all products that are crucial to Tehran's ship-building and nuclear operations.

In a memo from the National Security Council just hours before the vote, the administration argued that the new sanctions were unnecessary, duplicative and "threaten to confuse and undermine" provisions in current law.

Specifically, the administration complained about the omission of waivers that would give the president more flexibility, ambiguities that would make implementation difficult and requirements for congressional reports on thousands of small and mid-size vessels that dock at Iranian seaports that were too burdensome.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., acknowledged the administration's reservations and said he hoped lawmakers could address those concerns in crafting the final version of the bill.

The legislation also would designate Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its president as human rights abusers for broadcasting forced televised confessions and show trials.

The president has 90 days from the legislation's enactment to act. The bill does include the authority to waive the sanctions based on national security.

The overall defense policy bill for next year authorizes money for weapons, ships, aircraft and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel. The total is $4 billion less than the House-passed bill, and House-Senate negotiators will have to work out the difference in the closing days of this year.

Late Thursday, the Senate revived a divisive debate over civil liberties and the president's powers as commander in chief, voting that Americans citizens suspected of terrorism and seized on U.S. soil may not be held indefinitely.

A coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans backed an amendment that said the government cannot detain a U.S. citizen or legal resident indefinitely without charge or trial even with the authorization to use military force or a declaration of war.

The Senate voted 67-29 in support of the measure sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. The strong bipartisan approval sets up a fight with the House, which rejected efforts to bar indefinite detention when it passed its bill in May.

Ignoring a White House veto threat, the Senate also voted Thursday to add to its restrictions on Obama's authority in dealing with terror suspects.

Lawmakers approved an amendment that would prevent the transfer of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to prisons in the United States. The vote was 54-41, with several Democrats vulnerable in the 2014 elections voting with Republicans.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., argued that the 166 terror suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-styled mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, should remain at the U.S. naval facility and not be transferred to any facility on American soil.

Responding to Ayotte, Feinstein said the United States not only can but has handled terrorist suspects, with 180 now languishing in super maximum prisons. Feinstein complained that the measure would erase the president's flexibility.

In fact, the administration, in threatening to veto the bill, strongly objected to a provision restricting the president's authority to transfer terror suspects from Guantanamo to foreign countries. The provision is in current law.

Last year, Congress' approach to handling terror suspects divided Republicans and Democrats, pitted the White House against lawmakers and drew fierce opposition from civil liberties groups.

Current law denies suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subjects them to the possibility they would be held indefinitely. It reaffirms the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants.
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