AP: Congress is taking up a bipartisan proposal which would give the Obama administration more leverage over Iran by toughening economic sanctions on foreign oil and shipping firms that aid Tehran.
The Associated Press
By MATTHEW LEE
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is taking up a bipartisan proposal which would give the Obama administration more leverage over Iran by toughening economic sanctions on foreign oil and shipping firms that aid Tehran.
A group of Democrats and Republicans introduced legislation Tuesday that would give the president expanded authority to crack down on companies that export gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran.
The Senate bill is expected to pass because it has broad support from both Republicans and Democrats and is not opposed by the White House. A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the House.
Administration officials have signaled they would not block the proposal despite recent U.S. overtures to Iran. President Barack Obama and senior U.S. diplomats have directly appealed for Iran to cooperate in talks over the country's nuclear buildup, but Tehran has veered between interest and rejection.
Despite its own large oil reserves, Iran now imports as much as 40 percent of its gasoline because it has limited capacity to refine crude oil.
In the House, the Financial Services Committee on Tuesday approved an unrelated bill that enables state and local government to divest their public pension funds from companies investing more than $20 million in Iran's energy sector and to take other actions to protest the Iranian government.
Under the Senate proposal, the foreign companies could be barred from doing business in the United States unless Iran complies with international demands to halt its suspect nuclear program. The bill would also allow the administration to freeze the assets of those companies under U.S. jurisdiction.
The measure could apply to several major firms and their subsidiaries — among them oil giants Shell, BP, Reliance and Vitol. The bill would also target shipping firms that deliver refined fuel to Iran and even insurers for the ships.
"We need to give them a choice: you can do business with Iran's $250 billion economy or our $13 trillion economy, but not both," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is a lead sponsor of the bill along with Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. There are 25 co-sponsors.
Lieberman said he had raised the matter with Dennis Ross, the U.S. special envoy who deals with Iran policy, and Ross had not objected. Ross is currently visiting Gulf nations to discuss the administration's overtures with Iran's neighbors and could not be reached for comment.
The State Department would not discuss the specifics of the bill but said it was generally supportive of any move that would help press Iran to address concerns it is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran has repeatedly denied it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon and is only engaged in a civilian atomic energy program.
"We want to do whatever we can to put additional pressure on the (Iranian) government," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
Bayh and other proponents of the legislation said the expanded sanctions authority would fit in well with Obama's plan to engage Iran by providing him an additional "stick" in the existing "carrot-and-stick" approach on the Iranian nuclear program.
"The purpose of this legislation is to give President Obama a new tool in his diplomatic arsenal to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons," said Bayh.
Experts believe that Iran is three to four years away, some think sooner, from having the capability to make nuclear weapons. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — as well as Germany have offered the country incentives to stop reprocessing uranium that could fuel a nuclear bomb.
Iran has thus far ignored the offer and continues to amass enriched uranium, sparking grave fears in Israel, which has not ruled out military strikes to deal with the threat, the broader Middle East and elsewhere.
Bayh and others said their bill would provide the "best opportunity" to stop Iran from getting the bomb "without a resort to military force."