Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs are pushing for legislation to impose new economic sanctions on Iran. But at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, senior Obama administration officials asked Congress to give them a few more weeks to try to win broad international support for sanctions, if negotiations with Iran fail.
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Banking Committee Chairman, Democrat Christopher Dodd, said world condemnation of Tehran's secret uranium enrichment activities, its human rights abuses and post-election crackdown has unified the international community to step up the pressure on Iran's leaders.
"We must not let up now. I intend to move forward in this Committee this month on comprehensive sanctions legislation. I am committed, as I think my colleagues are as well, to ensuring that this Congress equips this president with all of the tools that he needs to confront the threats posed by Iran," he said.
A draft Senate bill seeks to impose new sanctions on companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran and to tighten export controls to stop the illegal transfer of sensitive technology, among other measures.
Iran has the world's second largest natural gas reserves and is a major crude oil exporter. But the country lacks the refining capacity to meet its domestic gasoline needs.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer told the Banking Committee that U.S. restrictions on gasoline exports to Iran might be one way to influence Tehran. "Gasoline is one of the few pressure points where if we act unilaterally, we will have real effect on the Iranian economy. Most of the other things we have to do multilaterally," he said.
The push for new sanctions comes after revelations that Iran has a second nuclear reactor under construction and after a new report that alleges Iran may be closer than originally thought to developing a nuclear weapon.
Both Republican and Democratic senators on the panel expressed their impatience with Tehran, and their fear that the Iranian government is using ongoing international talks as a way to stall, while secretly developing an atomic arsenal. Iran strongly denies having a nuclear weapons program.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the committee that the Obama administration shares Congress' goal of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. He said the United States is pursuing a dual-track strategy of continuing negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, while preparing to impose new sanctions, if necessary.
Steinberg said that the United States now has a better chance of winning international support for tough new sanctions against Iran because it has proven it is willing to engage in serious negotiations first. "When there is a recognition that we are going the last mile to seek a diplomatic resolution, there is a greater understanding if we have to take other measures," he said.
Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey told the Senate Banking Committee that his department has completed work on new sanctions, in case they are needed, and that it is now up to the Iranian government to follow up on constructive words with action.
A second round of international talks with Iran is set for October 19th. Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg says that by the end of this month, the world should have a clear indication of Iran's intentions about its nuclear program.