WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved two bills intended to strengthen existing economic penalties against Iran's energy sector and further hinder the development of Tehran's nuclear program (see GSN, June 7).
The first measure, dubbed the Iran Threat Reduction Act, is designed to "clamp down new and tougher sanctions" on Iran's oil industry, which helps finance the country's atomic efforts, according to committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who co-sponsored both pieces of legislation.
"The Iranian regime's Achilles' heel is its energy sector," she said at the start of the morning markup.
The United States and its allies have accused Iran of pursuing a capability to produce nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran vehemently denies.
The Middle Eastern state has been hit with four U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions aimed at ensuring the peaceful nature of its atomic program, as well as unilateral penalties by a number of nations.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday admitted to his nation's parliament that the flurry of sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and others have had an impact on the country's economic institutions.
"Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore," he said.
U.S. lawmakers are seeking to build on the latest developments.
"We must seize this opportunity to tighten even further the economic noose on Iran before the regime makes its ultimate move toward weaponization," said Representative Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), adding that Iran has lost $60 billion in foreign investments in its energy sector due to the wave of sanctions.
The new bill, which had 343 co-sponsors in the House and passed the committee by voice vote, would restrict foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business with Iran and boost the number of penalties the Obama administration would be required to impose.
It would also deny visas to individuals who conduct business with Tehran's energy sector and prohibit transactions with financial or commercial institutions controlled by the elite Revolutionary Guard.
The measure aims to build on the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which the president signed into law last year, by punishing foreign companies that would attempt to barter with Iran in order to provide gasoline to Tehran.
Lawmakers also approved an amendment by committee Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) that would inflict sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran if it is determined through a White House examination to be supporting Tehran's weapons of mass destruction or missile programs and their proliferation; financing the purchase of advanced conventional weapons; or bankrolling terrorist activities.
"I believe the Central Bank of Iran is not only engaging in those activities, I believe it is the ultimate engine of those activities," Berman said. "Our hope, as with all our sanctions, is that an economically challenged Iran will have less money to spend on weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and other nefarious activities."
He said Washington must "strengthen accordingly" its sanctions regime after Tehran's decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent and relocate enrichment centrifuges to the subterranean Qum facility.
Iran claims it is processing the material to utilize in a medical reactor, but some in the international community worry the maneuver could be a step toward producing weapon-grade uranium, which must be enriched to about 90 percent.
"Nothing that we do or that the administration has done can be deemed truly effective until Iran ends its nuclear weapons program and stops supporting terrorism," Berman said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle additionally cited recent allegations of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States as another impetus to step up pressure on the regime (see GSN, Oct. 27).
The committee also by approved voice vote the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Reform and Modernization Act, which would impose sanctions on individuals who have permitted or facilitated the transfer of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons components to those three countries.
Further, the bill would deny U.S. entry to any vessel that has landed in the ports of those three nations in the preceding two years and require enhanced inspections of vessels.
Ros-Lehtinen said she wanted both bills ready for the president's signature "to hand the Iranian regime a nice holiday present."
The Florida lawmaker began Wednesday's meeting by expressing her displeasure with the sanctions policy of the current administration and those before it.
"One Congress after another have passed Iran sanctions bills only to see them progressively weakened during the legislative process or not fully enforced by the executive branch," she said in her opening statement.
At the close of the markup, the chairwoman returned to that theme: "We're going to change history. We're going to hold the executive branch accountable, make them do the right thing."