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Congress' plans for tougher sanctions against Iran worry White House

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, which labored for months to press for tough new U.N. sanctions against Iran, now is pushing in the opposite direction as Congress crafts U.S. sanctions that the White House fears may go too far.

Administration officials have begun negotiations with congressional leaders who are working out different versions of House and Senate bills that would punish companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran or that help the country's oil industry.

While the U.N. action represents international sanctions, congressional action would pertain only to U.S. policies and agencies and would not be binding on other countries. Other countries and groups of nations also are considering adopting measures to augment the U.N. action.

The sanctions are aimed at forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program, which Western nations fear is geared toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists it is interested only in peaceful energy projects.

U.S. sanctions have strong support in Congress, and the administration backs them in principle as a way to strengthen the mild strictures adopted Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council.

But the administration fears that the legislation also could damage relations with Europe, Russia and China, all of whom cooperated with U.S. efforts on the U.N. sanctions.

To avoid that possibility, the administration wants authority to waive U.S. punishment against companies from countries that have cooperated on Iran.

But many lawmakers are wary and say the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has been lax in enforcing existing Iran sanctions out of concern for good relations with other world powers.

Republicans have been ratcheting up their demands for Congress to hang tough, arguing that the U.N. resolution fell short of what was needed.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the U.N. sanctions a "goose egg" and demanded that Congress impose "crippling sanctions against Iran."

Russia already has warned that it will strike back if the United States or other countries try to "layer" their own sanctions onto the U.N. punishments. The Russian foreign ministry declared Wednesday that penalizing Russian companies "could lead to retaliatory measures."

The issue is serious for the Europeans as well. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, reminded Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a recent letter that U.S. officials agreed in 1998 not to hit European companies with sanctions for doing business with Iran.

Congress' plans for tougher sanctions against Iran worry White House 06/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 10, 2010 11:13pm]
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