US House panel backs stiff new Iran sanctions

Iran could face tightened sanctions within months after a US congressional panel Wednesday adopted a measure targeting the nation's auto and mining industries as well as its foreign currency reserves.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, which would extend existing sanctions to the auto and mining sectors and allow the US president to subject other Iranian industries, such as engineering, to similar restrictions.

Today's US sanctions focus on Iran's finance and energy sectors, notably its oil exports. Six countries and territories -- China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey -- still import Iranian oil, but they have reduced their imports since 2012, with Washington granting them exemptions.

The new law, should it pass the House and Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama, would require further reduction of one million barrels per day over the next year as a condition of the exemption, amounting to a virtual embargo on Iran's crude exports.

"Now is the time to snap Tehran's Achilles' heel," the committee's chairman, Republican Ed Royce, said after the vote.

"Simply put, without oil revenue there is no cash for atomic weapons or Hezbollah."

The measure would also close a loophole in sanctions which the European Union imposed on Iran's foreign currency reserves by punishing any institution that serves as an intermediary in facilitating currency conversions for Tehran.

"Today's bipartisan passage of the strongest-ever sanctions leveled at Iran's nuclear weapons program should send a loud and clear message to Tehran: give up your nuclear weapons program now, or face uncompromising pressure from the United States Congress," said top committee Democrat Eliot Engel.

The currency penalty could land a severe financial blow against Iran, which holds an estimated $30 billion in reserves outside of Europe, mostly in euros, according to Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The bill is likely to be adopted by the full House, then considered by the Senate in the next few months.

Meanwhile the Senate on Wednesday approved by 99-0 a resolution condemning Iran's pursuit of nuclear capability and supporting Israel's right to self-defense.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that while the resolution does not authorize the use of force against Iran, it "makes clear that a nuclear Iran is not an option, and that the United States has Israel's back."

Pro-diplomacy group the National Iranian American Council decried the House and Senate measures as "saber rattling" that will merely stoke tensions with Iran.

Western sanctions have been in place for years in an effort to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb, which Washington asserts is Tehran's intent. The Islamic republic says its nuclear program is purely civilian.