After debating the imposition of new penalties on Iran before the August congressional recess, the US Congress passed a new package of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday that aims to punish banks, insurance companies and shippers that help Tehran sell its oil.
The legislation, agreed to by senior lawmakers of both parties in Congress, builds on oil trade sanctions signed into law by US President Barack Obama in December that have prompted Japan, South Korea, India and others to slash their purchases of Iranian oil.
The Senate passed the sanctions bill unanimously and the House passed it on a vote of 421-6. Lawmakers from both parties said they are prepared to take additional steps.
Obama still needs to sign the bill in order for it to become law. White House officials said on Tuesday they were reviewing the bill.
The new bill imposes sanctions on anyone who invests in Iran’s petroleum or natural gas sector, who provides refined petroleum products to Iran, who joins in energy ventures with Iran or who transports Iranian crude oil, closing several existing loopholes.
The sanctions followed criticism from Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney that the White House is failing to act strongly enough to stop Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The bill was endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobby group, which said the measure when coupled with existing US sanctions "represents the strongest set of sanctions to isolate any country in the world during peacetime."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the measure a “bicameral, bipartisan agreement that represents the strongest set of sanctions ever put in place against the regime in Tehran.”
She explained that it “blacklists virtually all of Iran’s energy, financial and transportation sectors, and cuts off companies that keep doing business with Iran from access to our markets in the United States.”
The measure, in the works for several months, moved toward passage at the same time that the executive branch imposed further sanctions of its own.
The White House on Tuesday slapped additional penalties on foreign banks that facilitate the sale of Iranian oil, including the designation of a Chinese bank.
China's Foreign Ministry said the sanctions announced by Obama would hurt cooperation between China and the United States.
"The US has invoked domestic law to impose sanctions on a Chinese financial institution, and this is a serious violation of international rules that harms Chinese interests," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who sought the Republican presidential nomination earlier this year, criticized the legislation as echoing the mistaken decision to go to war with Iraq.
“We’re beating the war drums once again,” he said, referring to Iran as “a third-world country” whose military assets can’t threaten America.