US House approves tough new Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON, December 14, 2011 (AFP) - The US House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved tough new sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to freeze what the West says is a nuclear weapons program and punishing Syria and North Korea.

US President Barack Obama's Democrats joined the chamber's Republican majority to back the harsh punitive measures in a pair of lopsided votes, 410-11 and 418-2, highlighting Washington's hostility to all three nations.

But the fate of the legislation was unclear in the Democratic-led Senate, where aides have said privately that the bills would not reach Obama amid concerns about roiling ties with trading partners as well as Russia and China.

Still, lawmakers were poised separately to adopt an annual military spending bill that includes a tough new proposal designed to cut off Iran's central bank from the world financial system, effectively an attempt to cause it to collapse.

The first stand-alone measure adopted by the House called for punishing countries and companies that invest in Iran's energy sector, furnish it with gasoline, or provide Tehran with know-how that may help develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or advanced conventional arms.

It took special aim at energy investments that benefit Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and meant to toughen existing sanctions by making it harder for the president to waive the measures on grounds of national security.

The second measure targeted nations or firms that help Iran, North Korea, or Syria advance their alleged efforts to acquire nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons or develop their missile programs.

The sanctions included freezing a person or company's US assets, bans on travel to the United States, denial of US government contracts, and restricting access to loans from US banks or entities like the Export-Import Bank.

The two bills won approval at a time when Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed fears that time is running out before Iran -- which denies it seeks nuclear weapons -- gets an atomic arsenal.

One of the bills specifically takes aim at Russia, forbidding any "extraordinary payments" connected to the International Space Station until Obama certifies to Congress that Moscow opposes allowing Iran, North Korea, and Syria to develop weapons of mass destruction or missile systems.

Obama would also have to certify that Russia's space agency has not, during the past year, transferred any technology or services that would help those countries develop such weapons.