The administration consistently points to the international and unilateral Iran sanctions as proof of its effectiveness in thwarting the regime’s nuclear program. But the program hasn’t slowed and now we learn how ineffective, on its own terms, the sanctions legislation may be. Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy reports:

The State Department announced on Tuesday that it has decided to apply the recently passed Iran sanctions legislation to the Belarusian company Belorusneft. But GOP senators monitoring the implementation of the law said the move was marginal and unsatisfactory.

The action prevents Belorusneft, a subsidiary of the government-owned conglomerate Belneftekhim, from seeking any loans or doing any business in U.S. financial markets. The sanction was implemented under the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) of 1996 as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010. In a press release, the State Department focused on Belorusneft’s 2007 $500 million contract with the NaftIran Intertrade Company (NICO), which is also being punished under U.S. sanctions. . . .

Three senior senators who have been intimately involved in the Iran sanctions law and its implementation immediately shot off a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, obtained by the Cable, criticizing today’s announcement as too weak.

“We are writing to express our disappointment with today’s announcement that the administration designated only one additional entity for violating U.S. sanctions with regard to Iran,” wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). “We do not believe this represents full compliance with the sanctions regime put in place by Congress.”

These senators have long been calling for the administration to penalize companies that hail from other countries, especially China.

It seems that the “new” sanctions are more for show than anything else:

The GOP senate offices in question see today’s designation as marginal, especially as the parent company, Belneftekhim, was already sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2007 through Executive Order 13405, which targeted firms connected to President Alexander Lukashenko for human rights violations, and three other subsidiaries were sanctioned in 2008.

“It’s a complete disappointment,” one senior GOP aide told The Cable. “You would have thought they had already found a way to only designate the lowest hanging fruit when they sanctioned NICO. Alas, they found a lower hanging fruit.”

I followed up with Mark Dubowitz (also quoted in Rogin’s piece) from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He told me that the lack of enforcement is serious: “A number of major international companies from Turkey, China, Venezuela and elsewhere remain active in Iran, and continue to sign new deals. For example, in a letter to Secretary Clinton in March 2011, 10 senators identified China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Zhuhai Zhen Rong of China, Tupras of Turkey, the PDVSA trading unit of Venezuela, and Unipec of China, amongst other companies, as potential violators.”

Earlier this month Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) sent a tough letter to the secretary of state on this subject, which included these comments:

It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law. We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree.

We would also like to know whether the Department has developed standard criteria to determine when it would be appropriate to use the “necessary to the national interest” waiver and whether the Department is considering such a waiver in any pending investigation should the party not discontinue prohibited activities. Additionally, what guidance has the Department promulgated concerning when it has received “credible information” to launch an investigation? We request you make available to us the clear guidelines you have set for the Department.

It’s hard to tell whether effective enforcement is simply impossible or whether the administration is looking the other way on a raft of violators. So instead the administration comes up with a crumb to serve to congressional critics. Dubowitz observes, “According to my administration sources, the choice of a Belarusian company had more to do with the “ripeness” of the information than any deliberate strategy to focus on easy targets and avoid difficult choices on tough ones.” However, given the response of the three senators yesterday it is hard to quibble with Dubowitz’s conclusion that “Congress isn’t buying this” as meaningful evidence of enforcement. Dubowitz tells me, “The time for incrementalism has come and gone. Only tough sanctions against meaningful targets will inspire confidence that the administration is committed to exhausting every means short of war to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Let’s hope the administration’s next target has a name we all recognize.”

And meanwhile the centrifuges keep spinning.