US House approves tough new Iran sanctions

Obama administration concerned fresh bill could hinder attempts to engage with Rouhani

The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)
The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The US House of Representatives has approved tough new sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and other industries.

The Obama administration fears the measures could undercut the Islamic republic’s incoming, more moderate president ahead of new nuclear negotiations. No date has been set for such talks, which would include other world powers Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

The bill makes no mention of Hasan Rouhani’s recent win or his pledge to improve Iran’s relations with the world. He will assume office this weekend.

The bill adopted Wednesday blacklists any business in Iran’s mining and construction sectors and commits the United States to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015.

Petroleum sales are the biggest source of money for Iran’s nuclear program.

Washington fears Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Tehran says its program is for energy and research purposes.

The bill builds on US penalties that went into effect last year and have cut Iran’s petroleum exports in half and hurt its economy. Still, China, India and several other Asian nations continue to buy billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil each month. That provides Tehran with much of the money it spends on its weapons and nuclear program.

President Barack Obama and his national security team are gauging whether Rouhani is willing to slow some of his country’s uranium enrichment activity. The administration wants to give him a chance to make concessions before Iran reaches nuclear weapons capacity.

Obama has given Iran until sometime next year to prove that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy and research purposes. He prefers diplomacy to the alternative of a military intervention by the US or Israel, which sees an Iranian atomic arsenal as a threat to its existence.

“We believe crippling sanctions are a key part of the pressure we put on Iran,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday. Asked about the House legislation, however, she answered: “We are not taking a position one way or the other.”

US officials have said the administration’s concerns are about the timing and content of the legislation.

If Rouhani is serious about compromise, new sanctions could make it harder for him. Even if he isn’t serious, the oil measures in particular are problematic because the US may not be able to enforce them.

If China, for example, decides to defy the US demand to stop all importing from Iran, the administration would have to weigh enforcing the law by blacklisting Chinese banks and companies at the risk of widespread economic harm — including for Americans. The other option is doing nothing, which could invite others to ignore the sanctions.

The House’s bill was drafted well in advance of Iran’s June 14 election. The election of Rouhani, a cleric and former top nuclear negotiator, surprised many in the administration and Congress who were prepared for a hard-liner successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has final say over all nuclear matters.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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