WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats pushed the Obama administration on Tuesday to get behind tough economic sanctions against Iran, and they voiced deep skepticism that direct negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions will prove fruitful.
Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, top officials from the State and Treasury departments evaded any endorsement of sanctions legislation introduced in Congress. They said that the Obama administration was preparing its own package of tougher sanctions for use if diplomacy failed.
The Obama administration held its first direct talks with Iran in Geneva last week, winning an apparent breakthrough when Iran agreed in principle to send most of its current stock of enriched uranium to Russia for refinement for exclusively peaceful uses.
Ahead of an Oct. 25 date for international inspectors to visit a previously covert
uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, however, Iranian officials appeared to be backpedaling from last week's commitments, according to published reports.
Democrats questioned the wisdom of talking with Iran without hard deadlines for certain concessions, and were irked by the lack of administration support for laws that could allow the president to impose tough sanctions.
"You don't want the Congress to pursue the legislation, but at the same time you don't give us a time frame," complained Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
One potential sanction that Congress favors is targeting gasoline sold to oil-rich Iran, which imports about 40 percent of its domestic consumption.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., co-sponsored legislation that would target gasoline sales and the equipment that's needed to help Iran boost its limited refining capacity.
"We have a window of opportunity here ... to really raise the price they have to pay for their nuclear ambitions," Bayh said.
Another potential target is Iran's central bank, which is accused of helping some of the country's banks avoid U.S. financial sanctions.
"We should treat them as a commercial bank and block them off" from the global financial system, said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sanctions against the central bank could work, said Gary Hufbauer, a leading expert on economic sanctions for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a policy research group in Washington.
"Central bank sanctions -- essentially denying Iran access to the worldwide payments system through SWIFT, IBAN and other networks -- would cause a great deal of inconvenience to the Tehran government," Hufbauer said in an interview. He was referring to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication and international bank account numbers.
A McClatchy-Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that 56 percent of Americans favored U.S. economic sanctions or diplomatic action against Iran, while 31 percent didn't. Sixty-six percent said they thought that Iran was a serious threat to the United States, while 30 percent didn't. That poll of 1,296 adults, conducted Thursday through Monday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.72 percentage points.
A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans said that Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons, even if that meant using military force. It also found that 63 percent approved of the U.S. negotiating directly with Iran on its nuclear program, but 64 percent didn't think those negotiations would persuade Iran to give up the program.
The poll of 1,500 adults, conducted last Wednesday through Sunday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Iran says it's developing nuclear technology for civilian power generation, not nuclear weapons.
The head of Iran's nuclear agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Tuesday that Iran would install advanced centrifuges that could enrich uranium at a faster rate in the newly revealed facility near Qom, news agencies reported.
A second round of diplomacy, involving the United States, Iran and five other nations, is scheduled for later this month.
For now, the Obama administration is resistant to congressionally mandated sanctions.
"We have not asked (Congress) for additional measures," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate committee, cautioning that the administration is weighing sanctions but hasn't come to any conclusion. "We are working very hard on this."
Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, who heads financial intelligence and economic sanctions efforts, told lawmakers that his office has tried to isolate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps globally. That elite security apparatus in Iran is entrenched in many large Iranian businesses, and Iranian news reports say that a company linked to the corps has won a majority stake in the Telecommunication Company of Iran.
"At this point we are trying to confirm it, but at this point it seems to be that way," Levey said, discussing another potential target for global sanctions.
The Obama administration aims to craft sanctions that hit the Iranian government without squeezing the population, which has braved violence in protesting disputed national elections. Clamping down on gasoline or isolating Iran's central bank may or may not hurt the government.
"At the same time, it may well be a tool that the regime could use to deflect attention from its own abuses ... which is certainly something we don't want to help the regime to do," Michael Singh, who was a senior director for Middle Eastern affairs in the Bush administration's National Security Council, said in an interview. "I don't think there really is an easy answer."
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