WASHINGTON (AP) — The House approved tough new sanctions Wednesday on Iran's oil sector and other industries, brushing aside the Obama administration's concern about undercutting the Islamic republic's incoming president ahead of new nuclear negotiations.
The bill makes no mention at all of relative moderate Hasan Rouhani's recent election win or his pledge to improve Iran's relations with the world. Instead, it blacklists any business in Iran's mining and construction sectors and commits the United States to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015.
The House adopted the legislation in 400-20 vote. It builds on U.S. penalties that went into effect last year that have cut Iran's petroleum exports in half and left its economy in tatters. Still, China, India and several other Asian nations continue to buy billions of dollars of Iranian oil each month, providing Tehran with much of the money it spends on its weapons and nuclear programs.
While the U.S. and many other countries believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama and his national security team are gauging if Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani is willing to curtail some of his country's uranium enrichment activity. At the very least, the administration wants to give Rouhani a chance to make concessions while Iran remains months away —if not longer — from achieving nuclear weapons capacity.
Rouhani will assume office this weekend, though no date has yet been set for new nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
Obama has given Iran until sometime next year to prove to the world that its program is, as it claims, solely for peaceful energy and research purposes. He clearly prefers diplomacy to the alternative of a military intervention by the U.S. or Israel, which sees an Iranian atomic arsenal as a threat to its existence and says it will take action according to its own timeline.
"We believe crippling sanctions are a key part of the pressure we put on Iran," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday. Asked specifically about the House legislation, however, she answered: "We are not taking a position one way or the other."
U.S. officials have said the administration's concerns are about the timing and content of the legislation.
If Rouhani is serious about compromise, setting new sanctions in advance of negotiations could make it harder for him and play into the hands of Tehran hard-liners. Even if the new Iranian leader isn't serious, the oil measures in particular are problematic because the U.S. may not be able to enforce them.
If China, for example, decides to flout the U.S. demand to stop all importing from Iran, the administration would then have to weigh enforcing the law by blacklisting Chinese banks and companies at the risk of widespread economic harm — including for Americans. The other option is doing nothing, which could invite others to ignore the sanctions.
The House's bill was drafted well in advance of Iran's June 14 election, and the non-reference to Rouhani in some ways reflects how long it takes in Congress for bills to become law. The Senate plans to consider parallel legislation after Congress returns from recess in September, and several Democratic and Republican senators promised Wednesday to increase the heat on Tehran.
"Until we see a significant slowdown of Iran's nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran," they said in a joint letter to Obama, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Dissenting during the House debate, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., asked: "Why do we want to strengthen the hand of extremists who will say to Rouhani, 'See, you thought you could work with them?'"
Still, it's unlikely that any law would be finalized before November. That gives the administration at least a few months to see if Iran under Rouhani changes course.
A cleric and former top nuclear negotiator, his triumph surprised many in the administration and Congress who braced for a hard-liner successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei maintains final say over all nuclear matters.