(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Congress is edging closer to legislation providing for the toughest sanctions yet on Iran, including measures targeting gasoline imports.
Majorities in both chambers have signed letters to President Obama urging him to move quickly to address the “grave problem” posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Differences between House and Senate versions of legislation, which passed in December and January with overwhelming support, will be tackled by a conference committee.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday that conference delegates would be voted on this week. He said the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman, would like to have the process wrapped up “in a matter of weeks.”
Separate letters to Obama, signed by more than 360 members of the House and 79 Senators, both cite the need for sanctions to “dramatically [impact] Iran’s ability to import refined petroleum.”
Analysts argue that the move would be an effective way of dealing with a country which relies on imports for up to 40 percent of its gasoline needs, due to its poor domestic refinery infrastructure. Even the possibility of such sanctions already has prompted at least seven key gasoline suppliers to announce that they will stop shipments to Iran.
But the administration has shown no enthusiasm for targeting gasoline, indicating that the step would hurt the Iranian people rather than the regime, and make multilateral sanctions harder to achieve.
At the U.N. Security Council, attempts to get China, Russia and some non-permanent members to support any sanctions would likely collapse altogether if the U.S. or its European allies were to insist on including gasoline shipments.
The lawmakers’ letters raise concerns about delays in getting multilateral sanctions in place through the Security Council.
“You have gone to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to impose tough new sanctions on Iran,” said the House letter to Obama, co-authored by Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.). “But time is not on our side. We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told ABC News in an interview broadcast on Monday that if the Security Council cannot agree on sanctions that include restricting Iran’s gas imports, then the U.S. and others should do so themselves.
“If the U.N. Security Council doesn’t pass it because they’ll dilute the resolution to get acquiescence of their members, then certainly the United States and other willing partners in the international community can enforce these sanctions outside the Security Council,” he said.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley on Monday denied that sanctions targeting refined petroleum were “off the table,” but he repeated earlier comments by administration officials about the need for “flexibility” in the U.S. legislation and for sanctions not to “have a disproportionate impact on the Iranian people.”
The administration has voiced concern about any steps that might undermine the so-called “green movement” which grew out of anti-government protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last June.
Tehran in recent days escalated its crackdown on the movement, outlawing the last surviving reformist parties, banning critical publications and hindering free communications among opposition supporters.
On Monday, a state media watchdog ordered the shutdown of Bahar (“Spring”), a reformist daily paper which had only been operating for two months after an earlier, seven-year ban.
The Fars news agency said the government accused the newspaper of “publishing false material, spreading doubt on key issues like the elections, questioning the decisions of regime officials and spreading lies about ministries.”
Also on Monday, the regime outlawed a prominent reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, as well as a smaller one, after their leaders were sentenced to six years’ imprisonment each for illegal assembly and propagating falsehoods against the state.
A state commission said they had violated a regulation which prohibits political factions from violating Iran’s “Islamic principles,” from “slander, libel and spreading of rumors,” and from “efforts to create or exacerbate conflicts between people.”
Both groups had endorsed Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main opponent, in last year’s election, and many of their members are among the around 5,000 Iranians arrested over the months since the disputed poll.
The two parties’ removal from the political scene – if confirmed by Iran’s judiciary – deprives the green movement, which is not itself a formal body, of its most important support from among recognized parties.
It would also mean that in the next election campaign, there may be no legal organized groups in existence to back reformist candidates.
The Islamic Iran Participation Front was founded after the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and was active during his two-term presidency. It backed a Khatami ally in the 2005 election which brought Ahmadinejad to power.