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Congress Ratchets Up US Pressure on Iran

The chairman of a key U.S. House of Representatives committee has signaled his intention to move ahead with sanctions legislation targeting Iran's refined petroleum sector, if Iran does not take up the U.S offer of direct talks on its uranium enrichment program. The statement by Democratic Representative Howard Berman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee came amid other steps in Congress to increase pressure on Iran.

Congressman Berman's statement came during a hearing on Iran, and refers to his Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) which now has 260 sponsors in the House of Representatives.

The legislation would amend the existing Iran Sanctions Act to target persons or companies involved in exporting refined petroleum products to Iran, or investing $20 million or more directly contributing to maintaining Iran's domestic petroleum infrastructure.

Although a major oil producer, Iran imports most of the gasoline it uses because of inadequate refining capacity. U.S. lawmakers see this as leverage in efforts to persuade Iran's government to halt its nuclear enrichment program.

Describing his bill as "Plan C" in a strategy that includes President Barack Obama's offer to Iran to begin a dialogue, and stronger international sanctions, Berman says he will move it forward in the next few months if Iran fails to take up President Obama's offer of engagement:

"I view the bill as a "Sword of Damocles" over the Iranians, a clear hint of what will happen if they do not engage seriously and move rapidly to suspend their uranium enrichment program as required by numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions. If engagement doesn't work than I am prepared to mark up the bill in committee early this fall," he said.

Currently both the House legislation, and a Senate version that has the support of 66 senators, remain in committee, so a decision by Berman would signal a go-ahead for both bills.

The Senate voted unanimously this week to adopt a bipartisan amendment urging President Barack Obama to impose crippling economic sanctions later this year if the Iranian government fails to take tangible steps to abandon its enrichment activities.

The amendment, attached to the defense authorization bill, urges the U.S. to impose sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran if the Iranian government has not verifiably halted enrichment activities by December, and come into full compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and additional protocols.

Republican Senator Jon Kyl sponsored the amendment with fellow Republican John McCain, Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, and Democratic Senator Evan Bayh: "By sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran, our nation would send the message that we will use all methods at our disposal to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and oppose sponsors of terror," Kyl said

Senator Kyl described Iran's central bank as being "knee deep" in the Iranian government's illicit activities including support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and processing transactions for Iranian banks already facing U.S. sanctions.

The Senate amendment also says if Iran has not accepted the U.S offer of direct diplomatic talks by the G-20 Summit in September, or fails to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing within 60 days of the summit, the president should proceed with sanctions on Iran's central bank.

Senator Lieberman referred to Iran's failure to take up President Obama's offer of dialogue. "It has now been more than three-and-a-half months since President Obama's formal offer of engagement and there has been no reply, no reply from the Iranians. Meanwhile, Iran's illicit nuclear activities have continued to speed forward in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions," he said.

Senator McCain said the amendment puts the Senate on record in support of a call by the G-8 summit nations for Iran to return to negotiations on its nuclear program, and sends an unmistakable message to Iran. "The administration has offered to talk, the ball is in the Iranian court, and if that regime continues down its destructive path we have no choice but to impose crippling sanctions for its continuing defiance," he said.

In his remarks [on Wednesday] Congressman Berman did not specify a date for moving his legislation ahead, saying only he would act some time in the [U.S.] autumn.

While he supports President Obama's goal of engagement with Iran, Berman said the U.S. should be prepared to try a different approach if Iran is not cooperating.