By Kevin Bogardus - 10/06/09 06:27 PM EDT
Lawmakers grew increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration on Tuesday as a State Department official refused to endorse a new package of sanctions on Iran that is expected to speed through Congress this year.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate Banking Committee the administration is reserving judgment for now on the new sanctions being considered by senators. That led to some consternation among the panel’s members, including prominent Democrats.
“You don’t want Congress to pursue the legislation, but you don’t give us a verifiable timeframe. That makes us very uneasy,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “Regardless of what is said, we need real action.”
Steinberg said the administration is pursuing a dual-track strategy of engaging with the Iranians while threatening isolation if Iran does not grant concessions.
Pressed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), he acknowledged the administration has not asked Congress to pass new sanctions. He also said sanctions would be more effective if they were multilateral.
“Sanctions are not only more effective if they are broad-based, but it also takes away the political argument that Iran could make that it is just U.S. hostility,” Steinberg said.
But that could be difficult. Imposing multilateral sanctions through the United Nations would depend on the support of Russia and China, which have been reluctant in the past to take that step.
Iran last week began a new series of negotiations with the U.S. and other countries over its nuclear program after its disclosure days earlier of a secret uranium enrichment facility in Qom. The disclosure sparked new momentum on Capitol Hill for sanctions against Iran.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Banking Committee, is putting together a comprehensive package of sanctions by combining several bills already introduced that have broad support across party lines. Dodd is looking at measures that would impose penalties on companies that support Iran’s imports of refined petroleum and authorize state and local governments to divest from firms doing business with Iran.
The U.S. already has an array of sanctions on Iran that have been in place since the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. Most recently, Congress in 1996 passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which sanctioned foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector.
Lawmakers hope the new sanctions would impact the regime by limiting the country’s gasoline supply. While Iran is a huge exporter of crude oil, it imports refined petroleum, much of it from China.
“Gasoline is one of the few pressure points that if we act unilaterally, we can put real pressure on their economy,” Schumer said.
Dodd said he would move his sanctions bill through his committee this month.
Moves by Congress to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran could complicate the administration’s multilateral negotiations with that country, particularly since the sanctions could affect private companies in Russia, China and other nations involved in the talks.
Steinberg said continuing diplomatic talks with Iran were the key to winning support from Russia and China. If a good-faith effort by the United States to negotiate with Iran was not rewarded, Steinberg said, it becomes more likely that Russia and China would join with the administration in increasing sanctions.
He promised lawmakers that the administration will return to Congress if negotiations with Iran this month led to no positive change.
“If we don’t see any action in the next few weeks, we will
need to move very quickly,” he said. “We will be ready and we will be coming
back to tell what we want to do.”
Corker said it seemed to him that the White House opposed the legislation being put together by Dodd. He also voiced concern that the bill could imperil negotiations with Iran.
“It does worry me that we could get in the way of the work you are doing,” Corker said.
But Dodd was adamant that new sanctions must be passed by lawmakers.
“This has gone on for too long,” Dodd said in reference to Iran’s nuclear program. “We don’t relish the choice, but we have no other choice.”