US to tighten sanctions on Russia, Iran, North Korea - and make it tough for Trump to ease them

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the bill is "one of the most expansive sanctions packages in history".
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the bill is "one of the most expansive sanctions packages in history".PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON - The US House of Representatives has voted 419-3 for increased sanctions on Russia,North Korea and Iran, at the same time ensuring that it would need Congressional approval to lift sanctions - a move analysts see as aimed at curtailing President Donald Trump's power to lift sanctions on Russia.

Ahead of the vote, Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger said Congress was "uncomfortable with any rapprochement with Moscow without getting some things for it".

"We're sending a message to Moscow," he said. "But if the President had any intention of trying to give Vladimir Putin what he wants on certain areas, I think he'll think twice about it."

A similar bill was earlier approved in the Senate, but the House version must go back to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved before the legislature breaks for the summer in a few weeks.

Some analysts say requiring Congressional approval to lift sanctions limits Mr Trump's latitude - but the State Department is in favour of latitude to enable constructive dialogue rather than be stuck with a rigid sanctions regime.

In this case, the Russian cloud over the President appears to have influenced Congress.

"The bill we just passed with overwhelming bipartisan support is one of the most expansive sanctions packages in history," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. "It tightens the screws on our most dangerous adversaries in order to keep Americans safe."

Dr Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former adviser on Russia to the State Department, said: "It is not unusual that Congress wants to tie a president's hands, but it is highly unusual that the president's own party is tying his hands." He told the Los Angeles Times: "It tells me that there is a lot of suspicion about Trump, his family and ties to Russia."

State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told reporters the legislation was in effect still in draft form pending approval by the Senate.

But she added: "The Secretary (of State Mr Rex Tillerson) has been firm about sanctions on Russia. We've talked a lot about the issues facing Ukraine, we expect and fully intend sanctions to remain in place until Russia stops the provocative actions that caused sanctions to be placed in the first place."

On Tuesday (July 25), Ms Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of the State Department's East Asian bureau, told a Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee the Treasury Department was preparing to target more Chinese entities involved in supporting the North Korean regime.

"The Chinese are now very clear that we're going to go after Chinese entities if need be," Ms Thornton said. But she added:"Ratcheting up sanctions pressure is not like a cobra strike. It's definitely a slow squeeze, a slow tightening of the screws."

In June, the Treasury department barred the Chinese Bank of Dandong from US financial markets - a move seen as signalling the US's willingness to broaden sanctions to hurt other entities doing business with North Korea.

At the same hearing, Dr Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation, said: "Successive US administrations have talked tough about imposing pressure on the North Korean regime but instead engaged in timid incrementalism in imposing sanctions and defending US law."

"The most sensible policy is to increase pressure in response to Pyongyang's repeated defiance of the international community while ensuring the US has sufficient defences for itself and its allies and leaving the door open for diplomatic efforts."