- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Additional U.S. sanctions on Iran are more significant for their timing than their immediate effect on Iran‘s economy, coming as the United States and its allies are arguing that Israel should hold off on any military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to allow more time for sanctions to work.

The U.S. ordered tough new penalties Monday to give U.S. banks additional powers to freeze assets linked to the Iranian government and close loopholes that officials say Iran has used to move money despite earlier restrictions imposed by the U.S. and Europe.

Like previous economic penalties, these are intended to persuade Iran to back off what the West contends is a drive to build a nuclear bomb. Israel increasingly is concerned that sanctions never will be enough to make Iran drop what has become a national priority for a clerical regime that has vowed to wipe Israel off the map.

The faster and more effectively the sanctions can be seen to work, the better the case to shelve any plan by Israel to bomb Iran, a pre-emptory move that could ignite a new Mideast war. Taking this initial step against the Iranian Central Bank, the first time the U.S. has directly gone after that major institution, is one way the Obama administration can show momentum now.

In Tehran, Ramin Mehmanparast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, dismissed the sanctions as “propaganda.” He said Iran‘s central bank has no financial transactions with the United States and would not be affected by the measures.

“Many of these (U.S.) activities are in the sphere of psychological war and propaganda, and they cannot affect our work,” he said.

Israelis officials have been open about their worry that Iran could be on the brink of a bomb by this summer and that this spring offers the last window of opportunity to destroy bomb-related facilities. Many Israeli officials believe that sanctions only give Iran time to move its nuclear program underground, out of reach of Israeli military strikes.

Israel considers Iran to be its most dangerous enemy and has vowed to prevent it from going nuclear.

Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was in Washington this week and will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday. He refused questions following a meeting on Capitol Hill on Monday, and an Israeli official in Jerusalem said the country’s prime minister has told Cabinet members not to be so outspoken about the possibility of attacking Iran.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a closed meeting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself often has commented about keeping all options on the table in dealing with Iran.

The new, stricter sanctions, authorized in legislation that President Obama signed in December, will be enforced under an order he signed only now.

The U.S. and Europe want to deprive Iran of the oil income it needs to run its government and pay for the nuclear program, but many experts believe Iran will be able to find other buyers outside Europe.

The European Union announced last month it would ban the import of Iranian crude oil starting in July. The U.S. doesn’t buy Iranian oil, but last month it placed sanctions on Iran‘s banks to make it harder for the nation to sell crude. The U.S., however, has delayed implementing those sanctions for at least six months because it is worried about sending oil prices higher at a time when the world economy is struggling. Iran exports about 3 percent of the world’s oil.

White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that Monday’s unexpected announcement of new banking sanctions was a sign of heightened worry about an Israeli attack.

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