WASHINGTON – The House voted 400-20 Wednesday to hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet over its nuclear program, in a forceful rejection of arguments that Congress should refrain from new penalties pending international negotiations with the new Iranian government.
The lawmakers adopted a bill that would basically block Iran from selling any oil abroad, after a year in which its exports have already been cut in half by international sanctions.
Lawmakers said they wanted to send Tehran a strong signal before the negotiations, and didn’t believe statements by Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, that he wants a better relationship with the West.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a co-sponsor of the measure, said that “today the House took a critical step toward crippling this regime to prevent a nuclear Iran and dire security consequences…. Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues.”
A group of 131 House members recently sent a letter to President Obama urging him to avoid actions that would undermine the chances for diplomacy with the new Iranian team. But a senior Senate aide, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said: “This is a major blow to the small, pro-Iran lobbying effort that’s been building since the Rouhani victory.”
It remains unclear whether the Senate will follow suit.
The Obama administration has been sending signals that it wants the Democratic-controlled Senate to hold off until after it is clear if Rouhani’s team will be flexible or if it will continue the tactics of stonewalling and delay that Iranian leaders have used in recent negotiating rounds.
Some congressional aides and supporters of cracking down on Iran predicted the overwhelming House vote would put pressure on the Senate to follow suit.
“The overwhelming bipartisan support for the House sanctions legislation sends a clear message to the Senate and the Obama administration of the need for enhanced leverage ahead of the next round of diplomatic talks,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which favors stronger sanctions.
But one private analyst predicted that the administration and some Senate members might want to test the Iranians and that the sanctions might not be in place until spring.
“If diplomacy flounders by the end of the first quarter of 2014, investors should expect implementation of sanctions that reduce Iranian exports - and cause considerable upward pressure on the oil price,” wrote Cliff Kupchan, an Iranian specialist at the Eurasia Group consulting firm.