US House backs new sanctions before Iran inauguration
The US House of Representatives approved new sanctions Wednesday aimed at preventing Iran gaining nuclear weapons capability, sending a provocative signal to Tehran before its new president is inaugurated.
The measure, which overwhelmingly passed 400-20, would slap strict limits on Iran's already heavily-sanctioned oil industry, as well as on other sectors of the country's ailing economy, including the automobile and mining sectors.
Critics say the vote was badly timed, coming just three days before Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator -- 2003 to 2005, under reformist leader Mohammad Khatami -- takes the presidential helm in Tehran.
Advocates of diplomacy have suggested that the United States should use the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a chance to seek engagement with Iran, instead of maintaining a rigid posture.
But House Speaker John Boehner made a special plea for passage of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act before Congress goes on its annual summer break at the end of this week.
"This legislation recognizes a stark truth -- that Iran is a global menace -- and acts decisively to address it," Boehner told the chamber.
"We know that Iran is attempting to build illicit nuclear weapons capability, in willful defiance of both the UN Security Council and the IAEA," he added.
Calling Iran "the world's most aggressive sponsor of terrorism," Boehner said "the United States - especially its Congress - has a duty to respond to Iran's actions, not its rhetoric."
The House vote signaled a rejection of a call by several former US officials, including ex-ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering, for Washington to pursue diplomacy with Iran's incoming president after Israel showed a hard line over Tehran's nuclear program.
"While we go on summer break, newer, faster centrifuges will be spinning 24-seven, 365," warned Democratic congressman Brad Sherman.
He added that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the president, "is making the decisions."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi also spoke in favor of the new sanctions, saying it was vital to recognize that "Iran with a nuclear weapon would be an urgent threat" to regional and global security.
Iran, she said, is "feeling the bite of our sanctions, but we must keep the pressure on."
But a small and vocal minority, mostly Democrats, stood up to decry the timing of the vote.
Rowhani's inauguration should be seen as a "small window of opportunity for a fresh start on dialogue and action," argued congressman Jim McGovern.
"We have plenty of sanctions right now against Iran," he said, adding that pricking Tehran just as Rowhani steps into his new role would only "undermine US diplomacy before it even has a chance to take shape."
Six countries and territories -- China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey -- still import Iranian oil, but they have reduced their buying since 2012, with Washington granting them exemptions.
The new legislation, should it pass the Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama, would require further reduction of one million barrels per day over the next year as a condition of the exemption, amounting to a virtual embargo on Iran's crude exports.
It would also close a loophole in sanctions which the European Union imposed on Iran's foreign currency reserves by punishing any institution that serves as an intermediary in facilitating currency conversions for Tehran.