Lawmakers push White House to tighten pressure on Iran

Congressional leaders prodded the Obama administration Wednesday to tighten the squeeze on Iran’s economy, saying that even last year’s dramatic sanctions against ­Iranian banks and oil companies weren’t enough to stop the Islamic republic’s nuclear advances.

At a Senate hearing on Iran, lawmakers called for new curbs on Tehran’s ability to sell oil or obtain gold and other hard currency to stabilize the Iranian rial. Some suggested that a show of force may be needed to persuade Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program.

“While the sanctions are working, they aren’t enough, and they aren’t working fast enough,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said during the questioning of two of the administration’s top advisers on Iran.

The hearing, one of two Wednesday that focused on the U.S. policy toward Iran, was a chance for lawmakers to vent frustration over the administration’s inability to secure a nuclear deal with Iran despite five rounds of international negotiations and some of the most draconian economic sanctions imposed in peacetime.

Even as European and Iranian diplomats gathered in Istanbul to consult on options for moving forward, one Republican lawmaker denounced the negotiations held so far as “useless.”

“Iran refuses to honor its international obligations related to its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and yet we continue down this road,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) said at a House hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Sanctions put in place last summer have reduced Iran’s oil exports by more than a third while cutting the value of its currency in half. Despite that, Iran has accelerated expansion of its uranium-enrichment program, which U.S. officials say is intended to give Iranian leaders nuclear weapons capability. Iran says the uranium is for peaceful nuclear energy.

Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s point person for nuclear negotiations with Iran, acknowledged that the administration’s diplomatic and economic initiatives have not achieved the desired result — yet.

“We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” said Sherman, the department’s undersecretary for political affairs. “Our preference is to resolve this through diplomacy. However, . . . there should be no doubt that the United States will use all elements of American power to achieve that objective.”

Sherman and David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said new measures in the pipeline would increase the strain on Iran’s economy in coming months. Those include regulations that will hamper Iran’s ability to collect hard currency or precious metals from foreign countries as payment for oil.

“We will continue to target Iran’s primary sources of export revenue,” he told the Senate panel.

Some senators at the hearing called on the administration to put more pressure on Iran’s remaining oil customers — chiefly China — to reduce or eliminate imports of Iranian crude. Sherman said that China had substantially reduced its consumption of Iranian oil and that talks were underway to lower imports further. But she cautioned against policies that could undercut international unity in blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“As we move forward, it will be critical that we continue to move together and not take steps that undo the progress made so far,” Sherman said.

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