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Congress advances toughest sanctions bill ever

Would close business loopholes

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Congress completed work Monday on a bill viewed as the toughest sanctions legislation to date aimed at punishing Iran for its nuclear arms program.

The new legislation, called the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), seeks to close loopholes that have shielded foreign subsidiaries of companies and banks that did business with Iran from scrutiny and penalties.

House and Senate conferees completed work on the final bill, which passed out of conference committee on Monday. A vote by the full House could come as early as this week.

Iran since 2006 has been enriching uranium at its Natanz facility despite its prior pledge to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union not to do so. Iran also has announced it will not allow short-notice inspections as required in an additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty despite having signed that document in 2003. Iran's parliament, or Majlis, never ratified the additional protocol.

When President Obama entered office in 2009, he sought for a year to engage Iran's government, offering Tehran a deal for Russia to enrich its uranium outside the country. Iran refused the offer and instead sought an enrichment deal with Turkey and Brazil.

The Obama administration increased pressure on Iran over the nuclear program during the past four months, including successful passage of a fourth U.N. Security Council resolution. The vote, however, was not unanimous, with Turkey and Brazil voting against the new sanctions and Lebanon opting to abstain.

"If applied forcefully by the president, this act will bring strong new pressure to bear on Tehran in order to combat its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, support for international terrorism, and gross human rights abuses," says a joint statement by Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

The legislation does not include a special exemption for companies from states the State Department would designate as "cooperating countries."

The bill gives President Obama some flexibility in applying sanctions to individual banks and corporations that still do business with Iran, but the federal government will be required at least to publicly identify the entities, something the White House exemption would not require.

The bill also closes a loophole that was used by U.S. corporations such as Halliburton to conduct business with Iran. The new bill requires large corporations and banks to declare any business they do in Iran through subsidiaries or holding companies.

The U.S. government in the past has not enforced actual sanctions on foreign or domestic companies that did business with Iran's energy sector, despite numerous laws passed by Congress since 1996. The Clinton administration leveraged these exemptions for more nonproliferation cooperation from the European Union. President George W. Bush also never enforced such sanctions.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbied in support of the new sanctions and praised Congress' work on it.

"We strongly support this crucial legislation — the toughest set of sanctions on Iran ever proposed," said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block

"We urge Congress to act swiftly to get the bill on President Obama's desk and call on him to fully implement these sanctions as soon as it gets there," he said. "These biting economic sanctions are the last, best hope for persuading Iran to stop its dangerous, destabilizing and illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons before it is too late."

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