WASHINGTON — By a veto-proof margin of 90 to 4, the Senate approved legislation Friday to impose new sanctions on Russian businesses and other organizations selling sensitive missile technology to Iran.
Senate passage of the sanctions, which already have been endorsed by the House, came despite a warning from the Clinton administration that the bill could torpedo diplomatic efforts to stop the missile trade--just as they are beginning to pay off.
The vote was the third rebuke by Congress in as many days to the administration's conduct of foreign policy. But this one, unlike the others, is not linked to the campaign finance controversy, and it points to a widening gulf between the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress over the nation's diplomatic priorities.
The bill would punish governments, businesses, universities, technical institutes and other organizations assisting Iran's missile program. Although Russia is not named in the legislation, supporters said all of the suspect companies are based there.
Supporters of the bill said that with Russian technical assistance, Iran expects to produce a missile by the end of this year that could imperil targets as far away as Israel; Iran, by the end of the century, may have a missile that is able to hit cities in Europe.
The White House said the bill would interfere with administration efforts to persuade the Russian government to strengthen its laws against missile proliferation and would damage Washington-Moscow relations across the board.
Officials said the use of unilateral sanctions by the United States would anger Western European nations and upset attempts to enlist the European Union to help stop the sale of missile technology to Tehran.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the White House seems unwilling to take effective steps to prevent missile proliferation. "The administration has refused to make sanctions decisions required by existing law," Lott said.
The bill was sent back to the House, which passed it in November on a voice vote, for consideration of a Senate amendment. It is expected to reach the White House shortly after Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess.
Although President Clinton has vowed to veto it, an override appears certain.
Earlier in the week, the House voted to place new restrictions on space-technology exports to China, including an outright ban on allowing any further launches of U.S. satellites by Chinese rockets, and to impose a 30-day congressional review on future U.S. nuclear export licenses. Both measures arose from the controversy surrounding alleged campaign contributions to the Democratic Party by the Chinese government.
Friday's vote had no such domestic political overtones and represents a bipartisan rebuff to the way the administration has chosen to carry out the nation's foreign policy.
Although the measure has enjoyed overwhelming support for months, Clinton clearly weakened his chances of fending it off when he waived economic sanctions against three companies--including the French oil giant Total--that are building a multibillion-dollar natural gas plant in Iran. Angry Republicans said the president's action on the gas project ruptured the already tattered trust between the White House and Capitol Hill on foreign policy.
Only two Republicans and two Democrats voted against the Iran sanctions bill. And even those lawmakers were critical of Russian firms and technical institutes implicated in the Iranian missile program.
California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, voted for the bill.
Opposition to the measure was led by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who said of the move to impose sanctions: "Good act--bad timing." Biden said the Russian government already has begun to crack down on enterprises doing business with the Iranians.
"Some Russian entities have assisted Iran's missile program," Biden said. "This assistance must stop and stop now." But he predicted that the sanctions bill would only make things worse by undercutting "probably the friendliest government [to American interests] in Russian history."
Supporters of the new sanctions argued that the Russian government should welcome the legislation because it cracks down on the rogue companies that the Kremlin says it is trying to rein in. "The U.S. government is trying to get Russia to end cooperation with Iran," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "There is a good-faith effort being made at the governmental level. Yet our intelligence sources tell us there are still entities within Russia that are cooperating with Iran on their ballistic missile technology. This is not directed at the Russian government."
As passed by the House, the bill would impose sanctions on enterprises that transfer, or attempt to transfer, missile-related technology to Iran after Aug. 8, 1995, the date that Russia signed the Missile Technology Control Regime. In a concession to the White House, the Senate voted to change the date to Jan. 2, 1998, the day the Russian government issued a new law designed to control export of technology that could be used in nuclear or missile programs.
The bill bans most U.S. government transactions with enterprises found to be aiding the Iranian missile program. Executives of those firms would be prohibited from visiting the United States. If governments are found to be in violation--no one is accusing the Russian regime at this point--the bill would ban arms sales and foreign aid.