Senate Passes Sanctions on Iran and Russia

The Senate almost unanimously approved legislation Thursday that slaps sanctions on Iran and Russia.

The bill passed 98-2, with Kentucky senator Rand Paul and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders voting against it. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly agreed on Wednesday to attach a batch of Russia sanctions to the Iran bill, after calls from both sides of the aisle to push Kremlin-related sanctions through.

Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker had pumped the breaks on the Russia sanctions bill weeks ago, per the request of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had asked for some time to try and change the direction of U.S.-Russia relations before Congress levied new sanctions on the Kremlin.

But it became clear by the start of the Senate’s work period that efforts to change the relationship, including in terms of the civil war in Syria, were not succeeding.

“I was going to give them until the beginning of this next work period, which began a few weeks ago,” Corker told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. “The trajectory did not change.”

Asked where Tillerson stood on the legislation, Corker said he wasn’t sure, but noted that the bill “strikes a great balance” between executive and legislative power.

“We do project ourselves strongly into this issue, Congress does, the Senate does, but we also left flexibilities for them to be able to manage foreign policy,” he said.

Trump officials have been eager to crack down on Iran’s non-nuclear illicit activities, and have squeezed the country with additional sanctions while they conduct a comprehensive Iran policy review.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have been similarly resolute. Thursday’s legislation punishes Iran for its ballistic missile testing and human rights violations, and applies terrorism sanctions to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

But administration officials have appeared more cautious about stifling the Kremlin with tough rhetoric and sanctions.

“I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation,” Tillerson told lawmakers Wednesday. “I certainly agree with the sentiment … that Russia must be held accountable for its meddling in U.S. elections.”

Thursday’s legislation levies new sanctions against Russian entities related to corruption, arms sales to the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime, human rights abuses, and “malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.” The bill codifies current executive orders related to Russian cyber activity and the country’s military moves in Ukraine.

It also allows Congress to review any administration attempts to ease, suspend or end sanctions.

Tillerson, who has said he wants to improve relations with Russia, urged lawmakers Wednesday not to constrict the administration.

“We would ask for the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to, but also to ensure that we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue,” he said.

For one, administration officials have reportedly been considering returning two East Coast diplomatic compounds to the Kremlin that were seized by the Obama administration in December.

Maryland senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told TWS that the White House might express some reservations about the bill, but he expected them to support it.

“My expectation is that the White House will have positive things to say about what we’ve done,” Cardin said. “I understand we take away some of their prerogatives, but in reality we give them a stronger hand that they can play with Russia.”

The passage of the legislation comes as congressional committees and a special counsel are investigating the nature of any potential links and contacts between Trump associates and the Kremlin.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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