U.S. President Barack Obama, July 13, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama, July 13, 2012. Photo by AP
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President Barack Obama announced new U.S. sanctions on Tuesday against foreign banks that help Iran sell its oil, efforts that he said would increase pressure on Tehran for failing to meet its international nuclear obligations.

Obama's decision, in an executive order, came ahead of congressional votes on new sanctions intended to further strip Iran of its oil-related revenues. It also followed criticism from Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney that the White House is failing to act strongly enough to stop Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

In a statement, Obama said the United States remained committed to finding a diplomatic resolution to the standoff with Tehran but was committed "to hold the Iranian government accountable for its actions."

"If the Iranian government continues its defiance, there should be no doubt that the United States and our partners will continue to impose increasing consequences," he said.

Obama's new sanctions target foreign banks that handle transactions for Iranian oil or handle large transactions from the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) or Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO), two key players in Iran's oil trade.

A separate measure imposed by the Department of Treasury targets China's Bank of Kunlun and Iraq's Elaf Islamic Bank for providing services to Iranian banks.

In an interview to CNN on Tuesday, the Israeli President Shimon Peres said he doesn't know how much time it will take to make Iran to give up the nuclear ambitions. "It could happen tomorrow, but right now they are intransigent". Peres told Wolf Blitzer that "the sanctions are functioning, apparently they have impacted Iran. We have to wait for them to impact Iran. We have to wait more and see if their impact is sufficient enough to convince Iranians to stop it - this would be the best way. None of us would like to see bloodshed. And the Iranians are not our enemies, let's not forget it - historically we've had occasionally very good relations. The problem is with Iranian leadership and policy that is pain in the neck of the entire world."

The new measures will help curb Iran's efforts to evade U.S. banking and oil sanctions, said Mark Dubowitz, head of the non-profit group Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which pushes for tough sanctions on Iran.

But he said more steps are needed to blacklist Iran's energy sector and require countries to further cut their oil purchases.

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, said the fifth round of sanctions "comes at a time in which sanctions are having a significant impact on Iran and its economy. President Ahmadinejad recently called these 'the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country.” And we see those effects across the board. We see it in the significant amount of Iranian oil that is coming off the market. We see that in the fact that Iran’s currency has plummeted in value. We estimate that the Rial has lost almost 38 percent of its value in the last year, since we moved to ramp up our sanctions. We’ve seen firms from all over the world divest themselves from doing business in Iran because they recognize the cost that comes with doing business in Iran.'"

Rhodes seemed to downplay the gap between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assessment that sanctions didn't make the Iranian government change its mind with regard to the nuclear program. "Where we certainly agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu is on the fundamental question that we have not yet seen the Iranian government make a decision to come in line with their international obligations," he said. "So we share very much the assessment of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Netanyahu that the purpose of the sanctions is to change the calculus of the Iranian government with respect to their nuclear program. And until they make that decision, we need to continue to increase the pressure. We’ll continue to coordinate very closely with Israel not just on the imposition of our sanctions, but with respect to our broader strategy of applying pressure and sharing our analytical assessment of the Iranian program and sharing our views of what our strategy is going forward."

The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams dismissed the toughness of the new round of sanctions. "Since taking office three and a half years ago, President Obama has allowed Iran’s nuclear ambitions to proceed unimpeded", Williams said in a statement. "As Israel’s prime minister recently made clear, the Obama Administration’s efforts haven’t made an ‘iota’ of difference. The president’s refusal to take a tough stance when it comes to Iran has imperiled our allies and jeopardized our national security.”

Rhodes seemed to be genuinely puzzled over such claims. "I didn’t necessarily see any policy comments that appeared to differ from the approach that we’ve taken with respect to sanctions", he said, commenting on Romney campaign criticism. "We have put in place crippling sanctions on the Iranian government. We have thrown the book at the Iranian government in terms of leaving no stone unturned in the sanctions regime. And we are determined and committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

On Tuesday, at the State Department briefing dedicated to the new "Country Report on Terrorism", Daniel Benjamin, Ambassador-at-Large at the Bureau of Counterterrorism, noted that the US is "increasingly concerned about Iran's support for terrorism and Hezbollah's activities, as they've both stepped up their level of terrorist plotting over the past year and engaging are engaging in their most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s."

Benjamin stressed that "Iran is and remains the pre- eminent state sponsor of terrorism in the world. We are deeply concerned about Iran's activities on its own, with the IRGC Qods Force, and also to together with Hezbollah, as they pursue destabilizing activities around the globe. We are firmly committed to working with partners and allies to counter and disrupt Iranian activities and to prevent Iran from sponsoring new acts of terror. And we think that the international community is increasingly alert to this threat and will resist it. I think that it's important to note that we've seen quite a number of different designations in the last year. We have seen a number of al-Qaida activists in Iran who have been designated. We have had the Arbabsiar case, which of course was foiled. We have had other designations of Hezbollah-related individuals who are involved in criminal activities. This has been an area in which we've had some really eye-opening revelations in the last year, particularly in the Lebanese Canadian Bank case."