WASHINGTON // Legislation authorising Barack Obama to implement even tougher sanctions against Iran was expected to be approved yesterday by the US House of Representatives, potentially giving the president a new punitive tool at a time when his administration's diplomatic overtures seem to be gaining little traction. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which enjoys the support of the vast majority of House members, would allow Mr Obama to cut ties to foreign companies that supply Iran with petrol or technology to increase its domestic refining capacity.
Iran, a major oil producer, lacks the capacity to refine it into petrol, a weakness US legislators hope to exploit with the new measure. A vote on similar legislation in the Senate has been delayed until at least next month after the administration expressed concerns over its language and timing. The House vote comes just ahead of a self-imposed, end-of-year deadline by which Mr Obama said he will be able to tell if new efforts to engage diplomatically with Iran are "moving in the right direction".
Mr Obama set the timetable, in part, to assuage Israel's concerns that diplomatic efforts would strengthen the Iranian regime and give it time to advance its nuclear programme. Iran maintains its programme is for peaceful purposes. The Obama administration has long characterised its approach to Iran as having two tracks: pursuing diplomatic overtures while preparing the way for stiffer sanctions should talks fail.
In recent weeks, new displays of Iranian defiance have met with sharper criticism from top US officials, casting doubt on the possibility of a major diplomatic breakthrough. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, predicted last week that the US and its allies would soon impose "significant additional sanctions" on Iran. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, echoed those sentiments on Monday when she said outreach efforts have "produced very little in terms of any kind of positive responses from the Iranians". "Additional pressure is going to be called for," she said in a news conference.
Iran announced last week that it would give up much of its enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel rods from Russia and France. But the amount of uranium and the timetable for the exchange fell short of those specified in a deal brokered by the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency in October. The board voted to censure Iran last month for concealing a small nuclear site near the ancient city of Qom, while also citing the "growing international deficit of confidence" regarding its nuclear ambitions.
Two days later, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, proclaimed Iran's intentions to build 10 nuclear sites, raising concerns in the West and, some analysts said, building momentum for further sanctions. The reprimand was supported by China and Russia, two permanent member of the UN Security Council that have extensive economic ties to Iran and have balked at imposing sanctions. The Security Council has approved three rounds of sanctions in the past, banning exports of dual-use technologies, limiting travel of officials connected to Iran's nuclear programme, and freezing some Iranian assets.
The US sanctions on refined petroleum, if approved by Congress and implemented by Mr Obama, would be the latest in a series of unilateral sanctions implemented by the US since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Analysts are divided on their effectiveness. Some fear sanctions have a disproportionate impact on ordinary Iranians, inflame anti-US sentiment and bolster the Iranian regime. Others wonder whether penalties meted out by the US alone - without greater co-operation from European allies - have any significant effect on the Iranian economy.