The U.S. Senate Banking Committee has voted Thursday to approve legislation that would impose sanctions on companies that help Iran acquire refined petroleum products. The bill aims to step up pressure on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program. Lawmakers are targeting Iran's energy sector, and hoping that other nations will join the United States.
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Ahead of the panel's unanimous vote to approve sanctions against Iran and companies that do business with it, Banking Committee Chairman, Democrat Christopher Dodd of Connecticut laid out what he saw as the stakes of the vote. "Well today we gather, as I mentioned, to consider an important bill to confront a very serious threat to the security of our nation, the United States, to that of our allies including the state of Israel, allies in the Middle East as well as in Europe, and that is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran," he said.
The Committee's bill would expand the existing Iran Sanctions Act to extend sanctions to oil and gas pipelines and tankers. Although Iran is one of the world's top producers of crude oil, Iran must import most of its gasoline because of a lack of refining capacity. U.S. lawmakers have long seen targeted sanctions against Iran's petroleum sector and gasoline imports as a crucial point of leverage over Iran's nuclear program.
The bill also includes measures that encourage investors to divest from firms that do business with Iran.
Iran says its uranium-enrichment program is designed for peaceful, electricity-generating purposes only. The United States and the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany have been trying to persuade Iran to agree to a UN plan for processing its nuclear material outside of Iran.
On Thursday, Tehran appeared to suggest it may try to attach a few conditions to the plan. Senator Dodd said the Senate wants to send Tehran a message. "So that we can send an overwhelming clear, clear message and signal, of our common resolve in this body, that Iran must finally come clean on its program and re-join the community of responsible nations," he said.
Ranking Committee member Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, was even clearer in his remarks that U.S. patience with Tehran is not unlimited. "This legislation makes a clear statement that it is no longer acceptable for Iran to draw the United States and its allies into unending negotiations, while continuing illicit uranium enrichment activities," he said.
The Obama administration is pursuing a dual-track strategy of holding diplomatic talks with Iran over its nuclear program, while at the same time threatening tougher sanctions if Iran fails to comply.
Some U.S. lawmakers fear that Tehran is prolonging the international talks to stall for time while continuing to develop its nuclear program.
Senator Dodd said efforts to expand and tighten sanctions against Iran are gaining momentum in Congress, and he hopes the bill will soon be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.
On Wednesday, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs committee approved a similar bill strengthening sanctions against Iran.