A House panel on Wednesday unanimously approved harsher penalties against Iran, arguing that an economically weak Tehran will struggle in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
By voice vote, Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee pushed forward two bills that would strengthen current sanctions while expanding the list of companies and individuals subject to penalties. Lawmakers cited recent allegations of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and insisted that such brazen behavior demands consequences.
The legislation builds on sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly passed _ and President Barack Obama signed _ last year. Those penalties targeted exports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran and banned U.S. banks from doing business with foreign banks providing services to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The United Nations and the European Union have also imposed sanctions on Iran.
The latest legislation "is designed to clamp new and tougher sanctions on Iran's energy sector, threatening the regime's existence if it refuses to halt its nuclear weapons program," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the committee chairwoman. She called Iran's energy sector the country's Achilles heel.
The United States has tried repeatedly to coax Iran into international negotiations with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany over its nuclear program. Iran contends that its program is designed to generate electricity, not build weapons.
Among the new provisions, the House bills would restrict foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business with Iran, include bartering among activities that could be sanctioned and prohibits Americans from conducting commercial or financial transactions with the Revolutionary Guard.
Directing its ire at Syria and North Korea as well, one provision would strengthen the prohibition on granting landing rights in the United States to vessels that have visited Iran, North Korea or Syria in the last two years.
Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said the government of Syria, widely criticized for its crackdown on demonstrators, receives political and material assistance from Iran.
The committee, by voice vote, adopted an amendment by the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman of California, that would require the president to determine within 30 days whether Iran's central bank is supporting the country's chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or missile programs, financing the purchase of advanced convention weapons, underwriting the Revolutionary Guard or aiding Iran's support for international terrorism.
If the president makes such a determination, the administration would be required to impose penalties that would bar any foreign bank doing significant business with the central bank from U.S. economic activities.
"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," Berman said.
The sanctions appear to be taking a toll in Tehran. Just this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged that the current penalties were impeding Iran's financial institutions, saying, "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore."
The committee also approved an amendment by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, designed to protect the several thousand Iranians living in exile at Camp Ashraf, located northeast of Baghdad, Iraq. The camp is run by the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, a resistance group to Tehran's clerical regime that has been a harsh critic of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It has been attacked by the Iraqi army, with dozens killed, and Baghdad is intent on closing the camp.
The provision in the bill calls on the administration to pressure Iraq to ensure the well-being of the camp residents. The measure also calls for preventing the involuntary return of camp residents to Iran and delaying the camp closure until the U.N. High Commission for Refugees can resettle the residents in another country.
"If history is any guide, it will see another massacre," Poe warned.
Ros-Lehtinen expressed hope that the House leadership could move quickly on the legislation, which has 343 co-sponsors.
She said she wanted the bills ready for the president's signature "to hand the Iranian regime a nice holiday present."