A U.S. congressional committee approved tougher sanctions on Iran on Wednesday, hitting out at Tehran’s central bank following an alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
The bipartisan legislation has good prospects for clearing the House of Representatives in the near future. In the Senate, lawmakers in both parties are working on similar legislation, increasing the likelihood that some version will become law.
“I hope we can ... have these bills on the president's desk in time to hand the Iranian regime a nice holiday present,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a sponsor of the House bill.
The legislation requires the U.S. president to impose sanctions on Iran’s central bank if he determines it is facilitating terrorism or the development of nuclear weapons, or supporting Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“I believe the central bank of Iran is not only engaging in those activities; I believe it is the ultimate engine of those activities,” said the author of the central bank provision, Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat.
The sanctions would effectively block from the U.S. economy any foreign bank involved in significant transactions with Iran's central bank. The legislation was approved by the House panel on a voice vote.
It would extend and tighten existing U.S. sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking sectors that were approved by Congress last year as part of Washington's efforts to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
The Obama administration has been seeking European support for tougher sanctions on Iran, including measures to target its central bank.
Washington and the European Union have already pushed four rounds of sanctions through the U.N. Security Council over Iran's nuclear program.
Berman said the United States would need to work with other countries to make any sanctions on Iran's central bank as effective as possible.
Business group criticizes bill
Business group USA Engage called the bill “draconian” and “counterproductive.” The sanctions are weakening Iran’s private sector “yet strengthening the grip of the ruling regime,” the group’s director, Richard Sawaya, said in a statement.
Provisions in the bill include restricting foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from engaging in prohibited business with Iran.
It would deny U.S. visas to individuals who do business with Iran’s energy sector, as well as deny U.S. visas to Iranian human rights abusers. And it would penalize foreign companies that do business with Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Gholam Shakuri, one of the two men U.S. prosecutors have accused in the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, is said to be a member of Iran's Quds force, the covert operations arm of the Revolutionary Guards. U.S. officials believe he is still in Iran.
The other man, an Iranian-American, is due back in U.S. court in December on charges of plotting to kill the ambassador with a bomb. The plot was announced by U.S. authorities last month. Iran has rejected the accusations.