WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration and Congress each moved Tuesday to further pressure on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Scrambling on an issue that has been gaining visibility in the election campaign, House and Senate leaders prepared for a final vote this week on legislation that adds penalties on Iran’s energy, shipping and financial sectors.
Separately, the administration announced an executive order that penalizes a Chinese bank and an Iraqi bank that have helped Iran evade international sanctions. The order also expands sanctions for the purchase of Iranian petrochemical products.
It targets alternative methods Iran is using to settle oil trades and the payment channels outside the normal world financial system that it is using to obtain hard currency.
"Today's action makes it clear that we will expose any financial institution, no matter where they are located, that allows the increasingly desperate Iranian regime to retain access to the international financial system," President Obama said in a statement.
The penalties are the latest in a series that have been imposed on Tehran in hope of persuading it to accept curbs on the nuclear program, which many countries believe is aimed at acquiring bomb-making capability. The United States has been forced to regularly add penalties as Iran finds ways around them.
House and Senate negotiators reached agreement late Monday on the legislation, which would penalize any company that sells insurance to the state-run National Iranian Tanker Co., provides oil tankers to Tehran, or mines uranium with the country. Congressional leaders said they hoped for a House vote Wednesday and Senate action by the end of the week.
The moves come in a week when Republican president candidate Mitt Romney has charged that Obama hasn’t been tough enough on Iran, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has complained that international sanctions and diplomacy have not set back the Iranian program “one iota.”
Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions advocate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, praised the administration’s steps.
He said the White House faces a perception that it has been “dragged by Congress into adopting its most forceful sanctions.” The executive order “provides a flexible tool that allows the administration to go on the offensive against both the regime and its critics.”
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and lead sponsor of some elements of the bill, said that unless Iran agreed to end the nuclear program “we must continue to pursue even tougher measures.”