WASHINGTON – A top Democratic member of Congress chastised the Obama administration Thursday for deploying sanctions against Iran in a way that was merely “symbolic” and could signal weakness to Tehran.

Earlier this week, the State Department singled out the Belarusian energy company Belarusneft, only the second time a US administration has imposed sanctions on a foreign company doing business with Iran.

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The first time was late last year against the Swiss-based, Iranian-owned energy company NICO.

“We have once again imposed sanctions on a company that doesn’t do any business in the US, so the sanction has no more than symbolic impact,” charged Rep. Howard Berman, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at the opening of a hearing with outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg.

“When we do that, I’m afraid we’re sending Iran a signal more of weakness than of strength, and we’re having no impact on their economy,” Berman argued. “Such impact is the very point of sanctions.”

Berman added that during a time of turmoil in the Middle East, it was crucially important to “keep our eye on the Iranian nuclear ball at all times,” and welcomed the designation in that light.

Also Thursday, the US Treasury sanctioned three vessels involved in illicit shipments for Iran.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen backed Berman’s comments and issued a statement herself after the Belarusneft designation, saying that while the move was positive, “the bottom line is that the State Department has not yet acted to fully implement and enforce our Iran sanctions laws.”

Ros-Lehtinen noted that no Russian or Chinese companies had been sanctioned, urging that “in addition to going after the low-hanging fruit like Belarusneft, the State Department must impose sanctions against energy giants that continue to do business with Iran.

That’s the only way that our sanctions will have the force to compel the Iranian regime to stop policies and programs that threaten the United States.”

Earlier this week, three senators sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, similarly arguing the need for “full compliance” with the sanctions imposed by Congress on foreign companies doing certain kinds of business with Iran.

“This latest announcement of sanctions suggests to some in Congress that the administration is not really that serious about enforcing sanctions on Iran after all,” explained Foundation for Defense of Democracy experts Mark Dubowitz and Laura Grossman in the Weekly Standard. “The Obama administration made the correct decision earlier this week to impose sanctions on Belarusneft.... But it’s small beer – Belarusneft is hardly a major player in Iran’s energy industry.”

Steinberg did not address the criticism in Thursday’s hearing, which was almost entirely devoted to US policy on Libya.

But in announcing the designation Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner contended that the sanctions would affect the company’s ability to function internationally.

“They limit the company’s ability to access the US market, and even if they don’t have any US commercial activities at present, they’ll limit their options to operate in the US in the future,” he said, adding that the measure “sends a message to our partners in Europe as well that this is a company that we’ve decided to sanction, and I’m sure they have access or would seek access into European markets.”

In Thursday’s hearing, Steinberg was also challenged on whether the US actions against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were helping clear a path there for al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood or others, contrary to US interests.

The US has acknowledged that it is not fully certain of the composition of the rebel group seeking Gaddafi’s ouster, and reports of al- Qaida elements in Libya have surfaced.

“We have to be attentive. We have to be alert. We know that al-Qaida has had a presence in Libya in the past, and we want to make sure it doesn’t reestablish there. But what we’ve seen so far is that this is not a significant factor,” Steinberg said.

He maintained that the Libyan opposition was “not looking to al-Qaida; they’ve rejected al-Qaida.”


In fact, he said that Islamist groups were on the defensive because it was “democratic forces” that have been toppling dictators.

“They might want to try to claim this because they’re behind curve on this, and I think they’re trying to catch up because they don’t have the support,” he said of extremist groups. “They’re afraid that it’s moving in a direction that’s against them. In fact, it’s our values, our principles that are on the ascendancy.”

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