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House panel approves bill to punish Iran

The measure, which would allow the president to take action against foreign companies that sell gasoline to Iran, aims to increase pressure on Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.

October 29, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — A House committee, seeking to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, approved a bill Wednesday aimed at punishing Tehran by cutting off its access to gasoline and other refined petroleum products.

The measure, which would give the president powers to take action against foreign companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran, is popular on Capitol Hill, and three-quarters of House members have cosponsored the legislation.

But the measure could undermine Obama administration efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear development program. If talks fail and further sanctions become necessary, administration officials prefer to enact measures supported by many countries, rather than just one.

"We prefer this be done in a multilateral fashion," said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman.

The legislative measure still must win passage by the full House and Senate. But initial approval by the House Foreign Affairs Committee came at a crucial moment. The Iranian leadership is expected to announce today whether it accepts an international proposal to export much of the country's existing stock of enriched uranium to be modified and returned to Iran for medical and research purposes.

If Iran accepts, the deal could delay what the West suspects is a push to develop nuclear weapons. Western governments hope acceptance would open the way to further agreements on the nuclear program, which Iran says is for civilian purposes only.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the bill would "at least force the Iranians to think twice about continuing to flout the will of the international community."

Even though Iran is a leading crude oil producer, it is lacking refineries, and so must import 40% of its gasoline, a point of economic vulnerability.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that such harsh measures "may not be the silver bullet that ends the regime's illegal nuclear weapons program, but they can be silver shrapnel which can severely wound the regime."

Advocates of the bill contend that Iran has been stringing along the West in the effort to secure a nuclear deal. Tough economic measures, they believe, will force the Iranian public and leadership to decide whether the nuclear program is worth the hardship and international isolation.

Critics contend that the measure would punish average Iranians without affecting the leadership. They say that sanctions could also disrupt the unity of the West by pressuring European companies to give up their sales to Iran, opening the way for China and Persian Gulf states to provide much, if not all, of the supply.

Among the present suppliers are France's Total, Royal Dutch Shell, Britain's BP and Switzerland's Vitol Holding, as well as India's Reliance Industries.

The bill also would allow the president to go after companies that provide ships to transport the fuel or that underwrite or finance the cargo.

Even so, some analysts are skeptical about the persuasive power of such steps with the Iranians, who have ignored punishments from the U.N. and countries acting on their own.

"Iran is a risk-acceptant country that believes the wind is still very much at its back," said Cliff Kupchan, a former congressional aide now at the Eurasia Group, a private analysis company. "There's reason to be skeptical that this would change Iranian policy."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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