Washington (AFP) Oct 28, 2009
Iran's main gasoline suppliers, including British, French, Swiss and Indian firms, may face tough US sanctions under a bill that sailed through a key House of Representatives panel Wednesday.
By a voice vote, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved legislation aimed at tightening the economic vise on the Islamic republic over its suspect nuclear program, which the West charges hides an effort to get atomic weapons.
The measure would empower US President Barack Obama to effectively block firms that supply Iran with refined petroleum products, or the ability to import or produce them at home, from doing business in the United States.
The vote came amid expectations that Iran on Thursday would deliver its much-awaited response to a UN-brokered nuclear deal aimed at defusing mounting tensions over Tehran's atomic ambitions.
Democratic Representative Howard Berman, the committee's chairman, said the "urgency" of freezing Tehran's nuclear drive outweighed the "distasteful prospect" of inflicting considerable economic pain on the Iranian people.
Berman said he hoped "to maximize the chances that Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism, will be prevented from acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear arms" and warned "we have very little time to lose."
Because of a lack of domestic refining capacity, oil-rich Iran is dependent on gasoline imports to meet about 40 percent of domestic consumption.
Iran gets most of its gasoline imports from the Swiss firm Vitol, the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura, France's Total, the Swiss firm Glencore and British Petroleum, as well as the Indian firm Reliance.
The new legislation would expand the criteria under which a company could face US economic sanctions under a 1996 law targeting investments over more than 20 million dollars in Iran's oil and gas infrastructure.
The measure would also target firms that help Iran import gasoline, including companies that fund the shipments, shipping firms, or their underwriters.
While the bill enjoys overwhelming support among US lawmakers, it allows Obama to waive the sanctions on national security grounds -- something all of his predecessors have done under the 1996 legislation.
The measure's fate in the US Congress is also unclear: three other House committees are expected to have their say before the full House of Representatives can vote.
And the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday will take up a similar measure in a broader package of sanctions legislation, making it harder for both chambers to pass the same bill quickly and send it to Obama.
A small group of dissenters on the committee opposed limiting the US president's options.
Republican Representative Jeff Flake warned against efforts to "tie the hands" of the White House, saying that decades of unilateral US sanctions on Cuba had "diminished the prospects" for US diplomacy there.
"I fear we will go down that road here," he said.
Democratic Representative Barbara Lee said the measure would "undermine" Obama's authority.
And Republican Representative Ron Paul asked rhetorically "how would we react if someone closed down our oil imports?" and warned that sanctions "are an act of war."
But Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman said Iran's nuclear program was deeply destabilizing and stressed: "If you don't want war, it seems to me that you must back the toughest possible sanctions."
At the US State Department, spokesman Ian Kelly was cautious about the bill Wednesday, emphasizing "the engagement side" of US diplomacy towards Iran.
But with Iran's response to the UN-backed nuclear offer uncertain, he added, "there is also the other track, the track of pressure, we believe that track has to be at least planned for."
"Sanctions on Iran are unlikely in the near future," Medvedev's top foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko told journalists, according to Russian news agencies.
The United States has in recent weeks been seeking a concrete commitment from Moscow to tough sanctions against Tehran should the current diplomacy aimed at ending the nuclear standoff fail.
Prikhodko did not give further details on Russia's position, saying he could only repeat a statement made by Medvedev in the United States last month that had initially gladdened Washington.
"Sanctions rarely result in the necessary result but in some cases the use of sanctions is inevitable," Prikhodko said. "This formula remains in force," he added.
He said that Russia was concerned by the "lack of transparency" surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme and the possible intensification of the nuclear crisis.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had on Monday said world powers should show maximum patience in the Iranian nuclear crisis and stop accusing the Islamic Republic of wasting time.
Russian officials have refused to commit publicly to a December deadline laid down by some Western powers for Iran to ease the international concerns over its nuclear drive.
Iran is due to give an answer in the next days to a plan, brokered by the United Nations' atomic energy agency, for Iranian uranium to be further enriched abroad in states including Russia.
The plan is seen as a possible solution to the standoff.
Western powers suspect Iran could be seeking to develop an atomic bomb under the guise of a civilian nuclear programme, but Tehran strongly denies the allegations that it is seeking a nuclear weapon.
Russia is seen as a key player in the standoff due to its close ties with Tehran and expertise in the nuclear industry. Moscow is building Iran's first nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr.
"Currently Moscow does not have fears about the Iranian nuclear" programme, the official ITAR-TASS news agency quoted a Russian foreign policy expert as saying.
But the source, whom ITAR-TASS said was familiar with Russian official thinking, added that Tehran's ballistic missile programme "at the current time poses quite a substantial threat."
He said Medvedev's comments in the United States needed to be understood as an indication that if the UN atomic agency found that Tehran was not playing by the rules "Russia is ready to support sanctions."
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Iran to accept nuclear fuel deal but wants key changes: TV
Tehran (AFP) Oct 27, 2009
Iran will accept the broad framework of a UN-brokered uranium deal but wants "very important changes," state television said on Tuesday, adding Tehran will offer its formal response within 48 hours. As state-owned Arabic-language television Al-Alam said Iran will demand key changes to the deal, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated that Tehran has the right to pursue nuclear technology. ... read more
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