Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speakes at a news conference, in Tehran, Iran June 17, 2013.
Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speakes at a news conference, in Tehran, Iran June 17, 2013. Photo by AP
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Reuters
An Iranian security officer surveys oil docks on the Strait of Hormuz. Photo by Reuters

The United States House of Representatives Wednesday imposed the toughest sanctions ever on Iran, describing it as a critical step to cripple Iran's disputed nuclear program.

The measure, known as the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, was passed by a 400-20 vote in the House. It came just four days before the inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani, a moderate cleric who won the recent election on a tide of dissatisfaction with the Iranian conservative hardliners

The bill will go to the Senate for consideration in September, after the congressional summer recess.

In response to the vote, Iran's foreign ministry said that new sanctions would not change Tehran's nuclear policy, but could complicate talks with world powers. Iranian state TV quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi as saying the measures could set back efforts at dialogue.

The legislation, if enacted and fully enforced, would theoretically devastate what remains of Iran’s ability to export oil, its most important product, by threatening customers with heavy penalties if they do not find other suppliers.

 

It would also eliminate Iran’s already diminished ability to access money in overseas accounts and expand the U.S. sanctions blacklist to include Iran’s automotive, mining, construction and engineering industries. Anyone doing business with those industries would be penalized in the U.S. market, effectively ostracizing them internationally.

In imposing the sanctions, the House brushed aside calls for restraint by critics who said the Iranian president-elect should first be given a chance to negotiate.

“Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues,” said Ed Royce (R, CA), one of the main sponsors of the bipartisan legislation. “The economic and political pressure on Tehran must be ratcheted up.”

U.S. Iranian experts countered that the message sent by the vote could embolden Iran’s hardliners and weaken Rohani’s ability to ease the estrangement with the U.S.

“They have a strong case to make that they can’t trust us,” said Gary G. Sick, an Iran expert who teaches at Columbia University and served on the National Security Council under the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. “Basically what the Congress is trying to do is confirm that.”