WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to act swiftly on new penalties against Iran if international talks on Tehran's nuclear program show signs of faltering. And this time lawmakers are talking about trying to block gas and refined petroleum exports to Iran, possibly causing serious disruptions in the lives of ordinary Iranians.
"If we want to get their attention, we have to do something real: sanction Iran's gasoline imports," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, in a speech on the House floor. "That's where Ahmadinejad is vulnerable," he said, referring to Iran's president.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, is one of several lawmakers working on plans to expand current penalties.
"Congress must equip President (Barack) Obama with a full range of tools to deal with the threats posed by Iran," said Dodd, D-Conn., who said his bill would include extending current restrictions on Iran's financial institutions, imposing new trade bans and exacting penalties for entities exporting certain refined petroleum products to Iran. His committee plans a hearing on the subject Tuesday.
Obama said talks Thursday in Switzerland between Iran and six world powers, where Iran indicated it would open its newly disclosed nuclear plant to U.N. inspectors, were "a constructive beginning." But he said Iran must match its words with actions.
The president said his administration, in conjunction with Congress, is crafting plans that could target Iran's energy, financial and telecommunications sectors. The hope is to gain a united international front that includes China and Russia, countries reluctant in the past to restrict trade with Iran.
Several Democratic leaders, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., say Iran should be given a short time to show it is acting in good faith.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the talks should have the chance to succeed. But, he added, "We don't have to wait, certainly for Russia or China or for anybody else, to take the action we deem to be appropriate."
Hoyer made the comments while speaking to the No. 2 Republican, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, on the House floor Thursday.
Cantor prodded Democrats to restrict gas and refined petroleum exports to Iran. He said Republicans did not support the concept of waiting "until there is some collective agreement on the world stage in order for Congress to act."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was more direct. "The U.S. must put away the begging bowl, act like a world leader and lead the effort to impose immediate, crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced a bill this year to toughen penalties against people who aid Iran's proliferation efforts. She has an ally in the committee chairman, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. He's pushing a bill that would prohibit foreign entities that sell refined petroleum to Iran from doing business in the United States.
While Iran is a major oil producer, it imports gasoline and refined petroleum products. Stopping fuel shipments to Iran could have serious effects on the Iranian people.
Mideast expert Kenneth M. Pollack, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, said it was questionable whether such penalties would work. There's bound to be ways around them, Iran is quickly expanding its refinery capacity and Tehran could manipulate world opinion by displaying the suffering of common Iranians, Pollack said.
The hardline positions of some in Congress, he added, could prove useful to the White House as it tries to get U.S. allies on board for the administration's more targeted penalties.