Senate bill 'in the oven' as US tightens existing sanctions on Iran

US insists move closes loopholes in current sanctions regime, doesn't impose new penalties that would violate Geneva deal.

Kerry and Zarif shake hands in Geneva 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
Kerry and Zarif shake hands in Geneva 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
WASHINGTON – The US is further tightening the screws on its sanctions regime against Iran, the US Departments of State and Treasury announced on Thursday.
“Iran’s efforts to use deceptive practices and front companies to further its nuclear program” required new action, the departments explained in a joint statement.
Action from the Obama administration comes just as a key group of bipartisan senators prepared finishing touches on a new sanctions bill against Iran, which would go into effect should six months pass without a final-status agreement.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned such a bill would nullify the interim deal on his country’s nuclear program, forged last month in Geneva.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, ranking members Bob Corker and Mark Kirk, among others, fear that the interim deal reached last month between Iran and the P5+1 – the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – will crystallize into a new status quo.
The agreement freezes, but does not dismantle, Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for modest sanctions relief.
“It’s still in the oven,” said one Senate aide, familiar with the bill, saying that the timing and strategy for a vote remain uncertain. “It’s possible it could happen fast, [and] possible it may take a bit of time.”
The new enforcement measures announced Thursday include over a dozen designations of companies located across the world, including in Singapore, Cyprus and Iran.
Any assets between the companies listed and Iran that have come under US jurisdiction have been frozen.
A series of companies listed violate an executive order, signed by US President Barack Obama, that targets individuals, firms, and financial institutions involved in or linked to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
A group of firms evading existing sanctions – primarily the shipment of crude oil – include Vitaly Sokolenko, Ferland Company Limited, Siqiriya Maritime, Singa Tankers and Mid Oil Asia.
“The Joint Plan of Action reached in Geneva does not, and will not, interfere with our continued efforts to expose and disrupt those supporting Iran’s nuclear program or seeking to evade our sanctions,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.
Cohen listed the existing executive orders that have been violated as E.O. 13645 and E.O. 13382, and noted that the companies in violation have been added to a list of sanctions-evaders consistent with practice under existing laws.
“Today’s actions should be a stark reminder to businesses, banks and brokers everywhere that we will continue relentlessly to enforce our sanctions,” Cohen said, “even as we explore the possibility of a long-term, comprehensive resolution of our concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.”
Zarif said such a move from Congress would render the interim agreement “entirely dead.”
In the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva on November 24, one provision of the deal outlines consent by the White House – on behalf of the entire US government – that “the US administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the president and the congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
“There’s a very clear distinction” between new sanctions legislation and stricter enforcement of existing sanctions, and the Iranians understand that, the senior administration official said.
Key senators are still negotiating the new bill, which aims to bring Iranian crude exports down by at least half its current figure – roughly 1 million barrels per day.
Senate leaders vow to respect the six-month time frame built into the Geneva deal.
A source close to the negotiations told The Jerusalem Post that, with forceful push-back from the White House against any new legislation, the situation over a vote remains a “fluid situation” as congress prepares to recess for the holidays.
Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson has crafted a similar sanctions bill that would move through his committee “quickly,” his office says, should Iran violate the interim deal or should negotiations flounder.
Responding to his colleagues, including Menendez, Kirk, Corker, Chuck Schumer and John McCain, Johnson said that passing a bill now would be a “counterproductive” move that might “shatter Western unity on this issue.”