With President Obama's announcement this week that his administration is working with new urgency to ratchet up sanctions against Iran's government over its nuclear program, attention is again turning to legislation pending in Congress to increase economic pressure. Iran's announcement that it is enriching uranium to 20 percent is likely to accelerate action by House and Senate lawmakers to formulate and send a final bill to President Obama targeting Iran's energy sector, but timing remains uncertain.
Last year, the House of Representatives approved the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would impose sanctions on persons, companies and financial institutions helping Iran import gasoline and other products, or assisting in developing its current refining capacity.
The Senate followed in January, passing the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act which, mirroring the House bill, would expand the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, and widen the definitions of petroleum products.
Both would sanction persons or companies investing $20 million or more in Iran's petroleum infrastructure. Individuals would face sanctions for providing refined products or goods, services, technology, information worth $200,000 or more or $1 million during any 12-month period.
Sanctions could end once the president certifies to Congress that Iran has ceased its pursuit, acquisition and development of nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic weapons and is no longer supporting acts of international terrorism.
Democrat Howard Berman, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke of what he called a single transcendent goal.
"To maximize the chances that Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism, will be prevented from acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear arms," said Howard Berman. "That capacity would pose perhaps the most serious strategic threat to our nation."
In a statement this week, Berman stopped short of indicating his plans to move ahead to conference the House and Senate-passed measures to create a final bill that could be approved and sent to President Obama.
Berman repeated that he would prefer to see other diplomatic measures succeed - including engagement and if necessary multilateral sanctions - before the U.S. intensified unilateral sanctions. An aide to Berman would not elaborate.
In testimony last year to Berman's committee, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, described the Obama administration's review of the status of implementation of the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act, including companies mentioned in a letter from members of Congress that were still dealing with Iran.
"We have started a process of looking into the 20 companies, the 20 deals that you list in this letter, and we expect to have this preliminary review finished in about 45 days in which case we would be able to say which of these need a further investigation as to whether they violate the Iran Sanctions Act," said Jeffrey Feltman.
Iran imports about 40 percent of its gasoline, primarily through Dutch, Swiss, French, Malaysian and Russian companies. Dutch and British firms are reported to have reduced their involvement.
German firm Siemens AG recently announced it would pull out of Iran by the middle of this year, and an Italian energy firm ENI said it would do the same after current contracts to run natural gas fields expire.
Republicans such as Representative Michael McCaul of Texas have questioned whether new legislation would be enforced, or could be effective when foreign companies continue to support Iran's energy sector.
"Is this just going to be a statement that we make in the Congress, like we do so many times, without any teeth? We know when this passes the Congress that Venezuela is going to continue to supply its shipments of refined petroleum products, and we know that China is going to continue to do that as well, and we know that many other countries will as well," said Michael McCaul.
While Congress has given the administration time to pursue diplomatic tracks, President Obama faced more pressure when a bipartisan group of senators urged him to use authorities under legislation Congress has already passed to impose the "crippling sanctions" the administration has pledged.
Separate from steps in the U.N. Security Council, they said the president should make full use of additional authorities he would obtain from the pending House and Senate bills. Independent Senator Joe Lieberman:
"The Iranians must appreciate that there will be consequences if they [don't] respond to the international community's diplomatic initiatives, in other words if they continue to speed their nuclear program forward," said Joe Lieberman.
There has been resistance too from the U.S. business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Foreign Trade Council warned of what it called "economic, diplomatic and legal conflicts" with U.S. allies, saying the measures would complicate business U.S. companies do with critical partners.
With legislative work in the House of Representatives delayed due to extreme winter weather and a scheduled recess, any clarity on next steps on Iran sanctions may not come until later this month. There may be more pressure for quick action in the Senate.
The administration moved ahead this week on track, announcing new sanctions targeting companies, banks and other entities affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps suspected of involvement in furthering Iranian government nuclear ambitions.
The State Department said it believes that sanctions already in place have had an impact, and that Washington believes additional pressure can be placed on the Iranian government without increasing the burden on the Iranian people.