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White House works to ease Iran proposal in Congress

The Obama administration fears tough U.S. sanctions against companies doing business in Iran would anger foreign allies.

June 11, 2010|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, talks to his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gonul, at NATO headquarters in Brussels one day after the U.N. vote on Iranian sanctions, which Turkey opposed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, talks to his Turkish counterpart,… (Carolyn Kaster / Pool Photo )

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration, which labored for months to impose tough new United Nations sanctions against Iran, now is pushing in the opposite direction against Congress as it crafts U.S. sanctions that the White House fears may go too far.

Administration officials have begun negotiations with congressional leaders, who are working on versions of House and Senate bills that would punish companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran or help the country's oil industry.

Unlike the U.N. measures, congressional action would pertain only to U.S. policies and agencies and would not be binding on other countries. Other countries and groups of nations also are considering adopting measures to augment the U.N. action.

The sanctions are aimed at forcing Iran to giving up its nuclear program, which Western nations fear is geared toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists it is only interested in peaceful energy projects.

U.S. sanctions have strong support in Congress, and the administration backs them in principle as a way to strengthen the mild strictures adopted on Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council.

But the administration fears that the legislation also could damage relations with Europe, Russia and China, all of whom cooperated with U.S. efforts on the U.N. sanctions.

To avoid that possibility, the administration wants authority to waive U.S. punishment against companies from countries that have cooperated on Iran.

Many lawmakers are wary. Some say the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has been lax in enforcing existing Iran sanctions out of concern for good relations with other world powers.

"The administration doesn't carry out the laws that are on the books, and they want the new law to be as weak and loophole-ridden as possible," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who has been pushing for years for such legislation.

Republicans have been ratcheting up their demands for Congress to hang tough, arguing that the U.N. resolution fell short of what was needed.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the U.N. sanctions a "goose egg" and demanded that Congress impose "crippling sanctions against Iran."

Russia already has warned that penalizing Russian companies "could lead to retaliatory measures."

Russia said Thursday that it intends to go ahead with sales to Iran of a highly sophisticated surface-to-air missile that has been a source of U.S. concern.

There are serious issues with Europe, as well. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, reminded Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a recent letter that U.S. officials agreed in 1998 not to hit European companies with sanctions for doing business with Iran.

The pending legislation presents other difficulties for the administration. Since a petroleum cutoff would strike broadly at the Iranian population, such sanctions would be seen as undermining the Obama administration's argument that it supports only those sanctions that focus narrowly on the Iranian leadership, said Peter Crail of the Arms Control Assn., a Washington-based advocacy group.

Meanwhile, U.S. business groups have been complaining that the legislation could punish them by barring U.S. firms from doing business with any foreign firms that have commercial ties to Iran.

Many oil and trading companies already have halted sales to Iran because of the looming threat of sanctions. But some that still could be penalized are Shell, Total and China Oil, said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute based in Washington.

BP, which is facing public relations problems because of the gulf oil spill in April, stopped selling gasoline to Iran in 2008, he said.

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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