A bipartisan group of eight senators are urging the European Union to level an oil embargo on Iran, while back in Washington both parties are preparing for another push on further Iran sanctions legislation.
"We write to you now to express our belief that 2012 will bring a turning point in the confrontation between Iran and the international community," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), in a Jan. 10 letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.
"Despite economic sanctions that have been put in place in recent years, the strategic calculus of the Iranian regime with regard to its nuclear program has not changed.... For this reason, we believe that it is necessary now to put additional pressure on the Iranian regime by imposing an embargo on its most important export -- oil -- and sanctions on its primary financial intermediary -- the Central Bank of Iran," the letter said.
The EU has signaled recently that there is consensus in principle to go forward with an oil embargo and impose more Iran sanctions, mirroring those passed by Congress and signed reluctantly by President Barack Obama. The EU Council meets at the end of the month, which likely would be the time for an announcement of new sanctions.
"What was unthinkable just a few months ago is now being seriously debated inside the EU: an oil embargo and Central Bank sanctions against Iran," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In order to empower those forces inside the EU who are pushing for tough action on both oil and CBI as quickly as possible, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have an urgent responsibility to send a clear, persistent, and strong message to the Europeans about the importance of this issue in the weeks ahead. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if the White House is doing so."
The administration is supporting the new EU sanctions in its public statements. "We're encouraged by the signs that we've seen, that they seem to have some preliminary agreement. This is something that we strongly support," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
Congress is also planning to renew consideration of more sanctions on Iran when it returns from winter recess. The Senate plans to take action on the Iran, North Korea, Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act, which is sponsored by Menendez, Kyl, Lieberman, Kirk, and Gillibrand. That bill, a version of which was passed by the House in December, would tighten current sanctions by doing three main things: 1) remove some of the flexibility the Obama administration enjoys to delay enforcement of certain measures; 2) target Iran's shipping and trade; and 3) push the administration to increase promotion of human rights, democracy, and greater access to information inside Iran.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Hill aides expect it to be reintroduced and referred to the Senate Banking Committee, which traditionally has jurisdiction over Iran sanctions matters. That could happen as early as next month.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is traveling to Beijing this week to try to convince the Chinese to go along with the existing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which require the United States to punish any country's central bank if it does business with the CBI. The Chinese preemptively announced that they have no intention of going along with that plan.
The choice of Geithner for the job struck many on Capitol Hill as odd, considering Geithner is on record as opposing the CBI sanctions and was reportedly personally involved in the administration's efforts to water down the legislation, even writing a letter opposing the stricter measures.
"I am writing to express the administration's strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran," wrote Geithner in December. "In addition, the amendment would potentially yield a net economic benefit to the Iranian regime."
"What a great irony that a month ago he puts his signature to a letter opposing the sanctions that he is now going around the world to seek enforcement of," a senior GOP congressional aide said, adding that the Hill is waiting for Treasury to issue its final rule for implementation of the CBI sanctions.
"We will be watching closely to see if they try to narrow the scope and what they try to do to water down sanctions now that they tried very hard unsuccessfully to water down before."