A key congressional committee has approved legislation to expand sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear ambitions. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act is aimed at placing additional pressure on Iran by punishing companies involved in assisting Iran's petroleum sector and gasoline imports.
Although a major oil producer, Iran must import most of its gasoline because of a lack of refining capacity, creating what U.S. lawmakers have long seen as a crucial point of leverage with Tehran over its nuclear program.
The legislation crafted by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, like a similar bill in the Senate, would prohibit non-U.S. companies selling, or enabling the sale or transport of refined petroleum products to Iran, from doing business in the United States.
Berman says the legislation would be only one point of pressure on Iran to roll back its uranium-enrichment program, which the United States believes is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon.
"It is not a magic bullet, but it will at least force the Iranians to think twice about continuing to flout the will of the international community.," he said.
Iran says its uranium-enrichment program is designed only for electricity generating purposes, and has allowed U.N. inspectors to visit a previously secret processing facility near the city of Qom.
Congressman Berman and at least 330 lawmakers supporting the bill, which expands the scope of sanctions to oil pipelines and tankers, say that despite some signs of progress in negotiations with Iran, Congress must step up pressure on Tehran.
Republicans and Democrats expressed identical concerns that by engaging in negotiations, Iran may be playing for time in an effort to move ahead with weapons-related enrichment.
Ileana Ros Lehtinen is the ranking committee Republican "It should be clear that unless we impose the maximum pressure on Iran, and this bill is a major step forward in that direction, the regime will continue its march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, dominating the Persian Gulf, and expanding its network of radical militants around the world," he said.
The Senate Banking Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on legislation identical to the House bill, and a separate provision also mirroring House action to encourage financial divestment from Iran by U.S. companies and pension funds.
Earlier this month, as part of a energy and water funding bill, the Senate approved a provision preventing companies selling or shipping gasoline to Iran from supplying oil to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Not all lawmakers supported tightened unilateral sanctions. Democrat Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims in the U.S. Congress, and fellow Democrat Barbara Lee argued that tightening sanctions would make President Barack Obama's efforts in negotiations with Iran harder.
ELLISON: "10 months of diplomacy by the Obama administration has achieved more than eight years of bellicose posturing and 15 years of sanctions and 30 years without dialogue. I may be open to a sanctions bill in the future but at this moment we need to give diplomacy a chance."
LEE: "The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is unacceptable and so is the status quo. However, I am extremely concerned that moving this bill out of committee will undermine President Obama's diplomatic efforts."
Republican Mike Pence said diplomacy must be backed by strong sanctions, while Democrat Shelley Berkeley pointed to Iran's nuclear program and threats against Israel by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in explaining her support.
PENCE: "Despite the fact that the prevailing diplomatic winds these days blow in the direction of diplomacy alone, I believe with all my heart that diplomacy and sanctions are not mutually exclusive."
BERKELEY: "It sends a clear message to those who do business with Iran's petroleum sector, you can trade with Iran and its less than $300 billion economy, or you can trade with the U.S. with an economy of more than $13 trillion. I believe the choice should be clear."
Though foreign affairs committee approval, which occurred by voice vote, is a significant step toward a vote by the full House of Representatives, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act remains subject to consideration by two other House panels.
Amid concerns voiced by Republicans about possible further delay, Congressman Berman said he intends to ensure the bill's progress to the House floor is not slowed.
Democratic leaders have said they are committed to bringing the Iran sanctions bill to a vote before the House completes its legislative work for the year. House and Senate bills would be subject to further negotiations in conference committee before any legislation would go to the president for signature.