Congress is considering a new series of hard-hitting Iran sanctions on everything from mining and construction to the Islamic republic's already besieged oil industry, despite concern from the Obama administration that the measures could interfere with nuclear negotiations.
House and Senate bills are both advancing at a time President Barack Obama's national security team is gauging whether Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani is serious about halting some elements of Tehran's uranium enrichment activity. Those involved in the process said the administration wants to temper Congressional plans until Rouhani takes office in August and has an opportunity to demonstrate whether his government will offer concessions.
The legislation would blacklist Iran's mining and construction sectors, effective next year, because they are seen as heavily linked to Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard corps. It also would commit the U.S. to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015, targeting the regime's biggest revenue generator and prime source of money for its weapons and nuclear programs.
World powers want the meeting "as soon as possible," Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said last week. Ashton has served as the point of contact for the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia since talks with Iran restarted last year. They've yet to make significant headway despite four rounds of discussions.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adviser to Congress and the administration on Iran sanctions, said moving forward with new measures made sense. "Iran's nuclear ploys continue to beat Western economic pressure," he said. "The administration must go into the next round of negotiations with significant, re-enhanced leverage."
The administration has other options too. It could toughen enforcement of existing restrictions on Iran related to energy, shipping, port management and other sectors the U.S. has blacklisted in recent months. Dubowitz estimated that stamping out gold flows to Iran that already are subject to U.S. penalties could eliminate $20 billion a year in Iranian government revenue alone.
The rough parameters of any larger nuclear deal with Iran are clear. It would have to include the West scaling back some of the sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy over the past few years. In return, the Iranians probably would be allowed to continue producing low-enriched uranium for fuel but would be required to halt production of any higher-enriched material that comes closer to warhead-grade, and send existing stockpiles of such material out of the country for safekeeping. Western powers also would surely demand tougher monitoring of Tehran's nuclear activities.