The failure of negotiations between six world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear program has jumpstarted the congressional push for even tougher sanctions aimed at crippling the economy in Tehran.
The latest talks this past weekend in Kazakhstan proved inconclusive as the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany pressed Iran to significantly limit its production and stockpiling of uranium enrichment. The international community fears Tehran is developing a nuclear weapon; Iran insists its work is for peaceful purposes.
The stalled negotiations — there were no plans for new talks — gave fresh impetus to bipartisan legislation in the House to impose new sanctions on Iran while Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was putting together a package of penalties likely in the next week or so, according to congressional aides and sanctions experts.
The penalties are certain to draw strong bipartisan support as lawmakers, fearful of Iran's ambitions and worried about its threat to Israel, have overwhelmingly embraced past sanctions legislation. The latest effort would mark the fifth time since June 2010 that Congress has slapped penalties on Iran.
"I'm concerned Tehran is only using talks as a delaying tactic — in the same way North Korea used a similar tactic to develop its nuclear arsenal," Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "Rather, the bipartisan legislation I've introduced further increases economic pressure on Iranian leaders to give up their nuclear weapons program. Congress will continue to turn up the pressure; it is our best chance to succeed."
Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the committee, introduced legislation in February that would broaden sanctions on Iran by expanding the list of blacklisted Iranian companies and moving to cut off Tehran's access to the euro.
Kirk, a top sponsor of sanctions legislation since his arrival in the Senate in January 2011, is crafting a bill that would target regime officials on human rights with travel bans and seizure of assets, and essentially impose a commercial and financial embargo on Iran.
It also would basically impose a tough arms embargo on Iran, its proxies in Gaza and southern Lebanon, as well as North Korea, Syria and Sudan. The measure would close loopholes in current law on Iran's access to foreign exchange reserves.
Current sanctions have undercut the Iranian economy, causing high unemployment and inflation while daily oil production and the value of the country's currency, the rial, have dropped.
In the latest round of talks, the six world powers were unable to persuade Iran to limit its production and stockpiling of uranium enrichment to 20 percent and close its underground Fordo enrichment site.
Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said lawmakers sense an imperative to act and ratchet up the pressure.
"I think everybody was waiting for this latest round in Almaty (Kazakhstan). Now that that's deemed to be a failure, Congress realizes that time is running out and clearly the current sanctions have not yet cracked the nuclear will of Iran's supreme leader," Dubowitz said.
The concern is that Iran is 15 months from an undetectable nuclear breakout yet has the sufficient foreign exchanges to last beyond that date.
"The question now is whether in that short period of time, the U.S. can massively intensify the sanctions and bring the regime to the brink of economic collapse before the regime achieves an undetectable nuclear breakout," he said.
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