Iran sanctions bill

The U.S. Congress is poised to consider an Iran sanctions bill this week that may shut down any transactions with the Iranian oil industry and tighten financial loopholes as part of tough international moves aimed at pressuring Tehran to curb its nuclear program.

Lawmakers from the Republican and Democratic parties are working on the terms of the final bill, after the House passed its own bill over the objections of the Obama administration last December, and the Senate approved its text in May. They hope to pass the legislation before the August break at the end of the week.

Adopting penalties against Iran, suspected of working on a nuclear weapon despite insisting that its program is for civil purposes only, is one of the rare areas where there is strong bipartisan agreement in Congress. In a letter to the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Banking Committees negotiating the final text, two House Representatives, Robert Dold and Brad Sherman urged a provision declaring Iran’s energy sector “a zone of proliferation concern,” according to the Associated Press.

“This would have the effect of making virtually any transaction with — and provision of services for — the firms in Iran’s energy sector sanctionable,” the letter said.

The international sanctions, in particular European and U.S. measures which came into force at the beginning of July and which target the financial and oil sectors, are reported to be having severe effects on the economy of Iran where some staple foods such as chicken have now become a rarity.

The country’s leadership has remained defiant, and there has been no noticeable progress in diplomatic negotiations between the big powers and Iran.

Against this background, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney traveled to Israel over the weekend where he warned yesterday in a foreign policy speech that “the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defenses”. Without departing from the U.S. administration’s policy, Romney said that “any and all measures” should be used to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, he did not explicitly support unilateral Israeli strikes on Iran in his speech. However an aide traveling with Romney courted controversy by saying that the former Massachusetts governor would back unilateral Israeli action.

The Obama administration, facing tough decisions on Syria’s civil war, is hoping to postpone any showdown with Iran until the November elections. It was reported over the weekend that the U.S. president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, shared attack plans with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a recent visit to Israel. Although the reports were denied by Israeli officials, the Obama administration clearly intended to demonstrate its resolve in dealing with Iran, if not to upstage Romney. If no face-saving solution emerges on the diplomatic front in the coming months, there will undoubtedly be some calling on the Administration to dust off those military plans.
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