‘A Nice Holiday Present for Iran’ As U.S. Lawmakers Advance Tougher Sanctions Legislation

By Patrick Goodenough | November 3, 2011 | 5:05am EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wearing eye protective goggles, visits a science exhibition in Tehran on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency)

(CNSNews.com) – Iran's oil industry, nuclear program, central bank and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are targeted in tough new bipartisan legislation, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

At the same time the measure aims to support peaceful, human rights-upholding Iranian opposition groups.

The move to tighten sanctions comes ahead of the release of an International Atomic Energy Agency report, due out next week, which is widely expected to strengthen suspicions – denied by Iran – that its civilian nuclear program is a cover for attempts to acquire a weapons capability.

It follows recent allegations that the IRGC’s foreign operations division was linked to a plot to carry out terror attacks on U.S. soil, including the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant bombing that could have killed many Americans in addition to the target.

A number of lawmakers cited the terror plot during Wednesday’s markup, which ended with the committee adopting the bill, with amendments, by voice vote.

The Iran Threat Reduction Act, which has 345 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, aims to toughen measures contained in last year’s Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which penalized companies that sell gasoline or other refined petroleum products to Iran or support its domestic refining efforts.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in this Tuesday, April 8, 2008 file photo. (AP Photo/Iranian President's Office, File)

Under CISADA the State Department in September 2010 named a Swiss-based subsidiary of Iran’s national oil company as the first to face sanctions. The department also announced that four major European oil companies had committed to stopping business with Iran, and that a Turkish firm had notified the U.S. that it had canceled contracts to supply gasoline to Iran.

But other companies are suspected still to be supplying Iran with gasoline. A Congressional Research Service report last April said these included three Chinese state-owned companies (Zhuhai Zhenrong, Unipec and China Oil), Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company PdVSA, the Dubai government-owned Emirates National Oil Company, and firms in Singapore and Bahrain.

Now lawmakers want to close loopholes, make the imposition of sanctions even more rigorous, and counter the regime’s attempts to evade them.

Committee Chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said Wednesday the bill was “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.”

Ranking Democrat Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.) proposed an amendment requiring the president to determine within 30 days whether Iran’s central bank is supporting weapons of mass destruction or missile programs, the purchase of advanced convention weapons, the IRGC or international terrorism.

If the president determines that the bank is doing so, the legislation requires the administration to bar any foreign bank that is doing significant business with the Iranian institution from doing business in the U.S.

“I believe the Central Bank of Iran is not only engaging in those activities – I believe it is the ultimate engine of those activities,” Berman told the hearing. “We need a sanctions regime that is as bold as the Iranian nuclear program is brazen.”

The committee adopted his amendment.

Ros-Lehtinen said she wants Congress to move swiftly on the bill.

“Following the markup, I will seek speedy consideration of this legislation on the House floor,” she said. “I hope that the Senate will act with similar urgency on this or similar legislation so that we can proceed to conference quickly and have these bills on the president’s desk in time to hand the Iranian regime a nice holiday present.”

Main provisions

As amended and approved Wednesday, the bill’s major provisions include the following:

--It makes it declared U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, developing ballistic missiles, and continuing to support designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).

--The bill directs the president to impose specified sanctions on anyone who knowingly makes investments or provides goods, services or technology relating to Iran’s petroleum sector; its ability to import refined petroleum products; the exporting of petroleum, oil or natural gas produced by the IRGC or its affiliates; or Iran’s non-conventional weapons programs. The president is authorized to waive sanctions if not doing so “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.”

--It imposes visa, property, and financial sanctions on Iranian government, security and IRGC officials who were complicit in serious human rights abuses against Iranians, inside or outside Iran, on or after June 12, 2009 (the date of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-lection).

--It prohibits the issuing of licenses to export U.S.-origin goods, services, or technology relating to civil aviation to Iran, and makes any such license issued to date invalid.

--The bill states that – except to meet obligations relating to the United Nations – no Iranian government official or agent who presents a threat to the U.S. or is affiliated with terrorist organizations will be issued with a visa or allowed to enter the country.

Similarly, no U.S. government employee may contact, in an official or unofficial capacity, any Iranian fitting those criteria. The president is authorized to waive this restriction if not permitting the contact “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.”

--The bill prohibits foreigners who engage in specified activities relating to Iran from entering the U.S.

--It authorizes the president to provide financial and political assistance to groups supporting democracy in Iran.

Eligible groups must meet specified criteria, including a dedication to human rights and the equality of women, and an official renunciation of violence and terrorism. No group that has been designated an FTO within the past four years will be entitled to assistance.

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