Congress Ready to OK New Penalties Against Iran

Associated Press + More

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard and imports of gas and other refined energy products in legislation that would strengthen U.S. penalties against the Tehran government over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The House and Senate planned to vote Thursday on a measure intended to punish foreign companies that sell Iran goods, services or technology that benefit its energy sector. [See who donates most to your member of Congress.]

The House passed its version of the bill in October and the Senate acted in January. But Democratic leaders delayed final action so diplomatic efforts could play out.

Two weeks ago, the U.N. Security Council approved a fourth round of sanctions against Iran that took aim at the powerful Revolutionary Guard and Iran's investments in ballistic missiles and nuclear materials.

Last week the Treasury Department adding three dozen more companies and individuals to its list of those subject to penalties because of their ties to Iran's nuclear program or role in helping Iran evade existing sanctions.

"First and foremost, we must stop Iran from continuing its illicit nuclear program," said the bill's chief negotiators, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. "Our legislation will provide the administration with powerful new tools to press Iran to change course."

The White House praised the compromise and said it would strengthen "a multilateral strategy to isolate and pressure Iran."

The legislation would:

—expands the scope of the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act by penalizing foreign companies that assist Iran's energy sector. While Iran is a major exporter of oil, it relies heavily on imports for its refined products such as gasoline.

—ban U.S. banks from dealing with foreign banks doing business with the Revolutionary Guard or aiding Iran's nuclear program.

—ban foreign companies from U.S. government procurement contracts if they provide Iran with technology used to restrict the free flow of information.

—provide a legal framework for U.S. states, local governments and other investors to divest their portfolios of foreign companies involved in Iran's energy sector.

The Tehran government has shrugged off the latest U.N. penalties and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Critics of the sanctions have said previous penalties haven't worked because there hasn't been international cooperation behind theme or because Washington has been reluctant to punish companies from countries with close ties to the U.S.

"We continue to believe the legislation is ill-advised," said Richard Sawaya, director of USA Engage, a business and trade group that opposes the penalties. "Unilateral sanctions fail to produce their intended effects upon sovereign states, and the scope of these sanctions is worrisome."

As with past measures, the White House asked for flexibility in applying sanctions so as to protect national security interests.

"Whether the United States and our allies can stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability is a matter of political will," said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. "Congress will closely monitor whether the Obama administration effectively implements the sanctions authorized."

Administration officials told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that sanctions would be enforced and could be effective. "Iran is not 10-feet tall," said Undersecretary of State William Burns. "Sanctions create real problems for them."