By Jamie Crawford
With a new package of sanctions passed by Congress along with an executive order signed by President Barack Obama earlier this week, the United States is further tightening the screws on Iran amid persistent tension and concern over its nuclear program.
Congress passed legislation Wednesday evening that along with the White House's action "closes loopholes and stops the use of front companies or financial institutions to get around international sanctions," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said in a statement released after its passage.
The new legislation aims to sanction banks, insurance companies and shippers that help Iran sell its oil by circumventing current sanctions, such as through the reflagging of Iranian ships. It puts virtually all of Iran's energy, financial and transportation sectors under U.S. sanctions.
In addition, the legislation seeks to prevent the return to Iran of any revenue from the purchase of Iranian oil that is legally allowed under existing sanctions.
"The bill sends a clear message to the Iranian regime that the U.S. is committed, through the use of sanctions, to preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
The legislation passed by unanimous consent in the Senate following a vote of 421-6 in the House. It passed the same day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told visiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the time to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, and persuade it to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program, was running out.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, announced its support of the legislation after its passage. "The maximum economic pressure must be exerted to persuade Tehran to change course," the group said in a written statement.
On Tuesday, the president signed an executive order against the Iranian energy and petrochemical sectors, seeking to prevent the establishment of payment mechanisms that could work around existing sanctions aimed at the Iranian energy sector that Obama signed into law earlier this year.
The United States, along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, engaged in discussions with Iran earlier this year about a program many Western countries fear has a clandestine military dimension to it. Iran claims the program is only for medical and energy purposes.
Those talks have produced little tangible progress, and the status of future talks is uncertain.
The United States has already granted exceptions to current sanctions to all major importers of Iranian oil based on evidence that those countries had significantly reduced their purchases. Countries granted exceptions must demonstrate every 180 days their continued reduction of such purchases in order to avoid the trigger of U.S. sanctions.
The Treasury Department also announced sanctions this week against Chinese and Iraqi banks that "facilitated transactions worth millions of dollars" for Iranian banks already under sanctions.
The actions by the administration and Congress "work very well together," according to Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran sanctions with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. By further restricting energy trade through Obama's executive order, "the legislation essentially kicks in by giving the president the authority to go after, really, any entity who is aiding and abetting Iran" through the purchase of its oil by working around existing sanctions Dubowitz said.
This week's actions come amid charges by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that the administration is not doing enough to force Iran to change course on its disputed nuclear program.
In a conference call with reporters this week, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said he had not seen anything in regard to Romney's rhetoric on sanctions that differed much from the administration's approach.
"We have thrown the book at the Iranian government in terms of leaving no stone unturned in the sanctions regime," Rhodes said. "And we are determined and committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Still, those like Dubowitz who follow the sanctions closely say more action can be taken to affect the Iranian calculus in regard to the West's demands that it come clean on its nuclear ambitions.
Dubowitz said action could be taken against purchasers of natural gas from Iran, which has the world's second largest reserves of that commodity, and there could be a complete designation of Iran's central bank as a zone of proliferation concern. That move would bar every financial transaction with the bank, with the exception of humanitarian goods, thereby setting up a de-facto trade embargo of the country.
"On the sanctions dial from zero to 10," Dubowitz said, "we are at seven or seven and a half. We need to get to 10."
The legislation now heads to the White House for Obama's signature.