Amid the latest tensions between Iran and the international community over Iranian nuclear ambitions, the House of Representatives has approved legislation that would sanction companies or individuals engaged in Iran's energy sector.

The legislation strengthens existing bilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran under a 1996 law that also targeted Libya, which ended its weapons of mass destruction efforts in 2003.

Called the Iran Freedom Support Act, the bill contains provisions to punish foreign companies or individuals investing more than $20 million in Iran's energy sector.

It raises the prospect of cutting off U.S. aid to countries helping Iran acquire or develop chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or what it calls destabilizing numbers of advanced convention weapons.

It is also aimed at encouraging American investors and pension plans to divest from companies that invest in Iran's energy sector.

Provisions of the bill support groups opposing Iran's government and its support for international terrorism.

By the time it reached the House floor Wednesday, the Iran Freedom Support Act had strong bipartisan support of 367 lawmakers in the 435-member House.

"If we fail to use both our economic and our diplomatic tools, the world will face a nightmare that knows no end. A despotic, fundamentalist regime that avidly supports terrorism, exploiting and threatening to use the ultimate weapon of terror," said Congressman Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

Opponents of the legislation asserted that, threats from Iran notwithstanding, it will hurt diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff with Tehran.

"This legislation does not provide solution[s]. Instead it limits the administration's flexibility to pursue diplomacy without providing any new tools not already at their disposal. We need allies and partners to address the Iranian threat," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat.

Republican Mike Pence says the legislation sends an unequivocal message to Iran's leadership.

"It is strong, it is smart, and it is a diplomatic measure expressed by the Congress, the will of the American people into a circumstance that is real, that is meaningful, and for which the clarity of the position of the U.S. is essential at this moment," he said.

House debate took place against the backdrop of the latest statements by Iranian officials, including one by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei threatening to harm U.S. interests around the world in response to any attack.

The legislation contains language stating that it does not authorize military action against Iran, which was included to make clear the House is not going on record sanctioning regime change.

Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, an opponent of the legislation, is among those arguing it is a step in the direction of military action.

"While this bill makes a point of so-called not authorizing the use of force against Iran, be assured this is a stepping stone to the use of force, the same way that the Iraq Liberation Act was used as a stepping stone," he said.

The Bush administration had pressed lawmakers to soften provisions of the legislation so as to not undermine U.S. efforts to engage key allies in joint diplomatic efforts.

Supporters maintained Wednesday that the White House has not yet taken a position on the bill as amended.

A similar bill introduced in the Senate in February of 2005 has been stuck in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and it is not known when or whether it will move forward there.

House and Senate versions of the Iran Freedom Support Act contain provisions calling for support of independent pro-democracy radio and television broadcasts to Iran.