A key House panel pushed through legislation Wednesday calling on the Obama administration to significantly broaden U.S. sanctions on Iran, just as the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency released a report saying the Islamic republic's nuclear program had made measurable advances.
Citing an increase in cutting-edge uranium enrichment equipment at a facility south of Tehran, the International Atomic Energy Agency report also suggested that Iran is pressing ahead with construction of a separate research reactor that analysts say could be used to produce plutonium for a nuclear warhead.
Although the agency noted that Iran's stockpile of nuclear material enriched to medium strengths remains below the "red line" identified by Israeli leaders in recent months, a spokesman at the State Department said Wednesday that the other findings marked "an unfortunate milestone with regard to Iran's illicit nuclear activities."
There was broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, for legislation aimed at pushing the White House toward using more economic punishment to pressure Iran into abandoning the nuclear program.
By a unanimous voice vote, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the legislation, which calls for an expansion of the number of individuals and entities that the administration can sanction, on top of efforts to bring about a global embargo to Iranian crude oil.
In addition to requiring the Obama administration to report more regularly to Congress on the status of Iran's nuclear program, the legislation will "limit Iran's access to overseas foreign currency reserves, blacklist more sectors of the economy, and begin to target significant commercial trade with Iran," said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
It also increases the numbers and kinds of human-rights abuses that can bring about sanctions.
"Shipping is targeted too," said Mr. Royce, who was joined by Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and the Foreign Affairs Committee's ranking member, in introducing the legislation. "We squeeze — and then squeeze some more."
Mr. Royce said the Obama administration's sanctions have had "impressive results," but their net effect has not succeeded in slowing Iran's nuclear program. "We have to play every card and pull every lever we have," he said.
"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," Mr. Engel said.
Iran politics on the move
With 133 House Democrats and 205 House Republicans as co-signers, the sanctions legislation is expected to move quickly toward a full House vote in the coming weeks.
If it reaches President Obama's desk by late summer, it will be ready for implementation just a new leader takes power in Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second term in office ends Aug. 3.
Foreign policy insiders say it is not clear whether Iran's next president, along with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic republic's supreme leader, may soften Mr. Ahmadinejad's abrasive posture toward Washington.
Among the candidates that a council — heavily influenced by Ayatollah Khamenei — have approved for the June 14 election is Saeed Jalili, the Islamic republic's top nuclear negotiator.
Iranian leaders have held to their claim in the past year that their program is peaceful, but Wednesday's legislative development in Washington showed how firmly U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle embrace a view shared by allies in the Europe and the Middle East — particularly Israel — that Iran is quickly and secretly refining enough nuclear material to soon develop a nuclear warhead.
The view was also on full display Wednesday in the Senate with a 99-0 vote to pass a resolution declaring solidarity with Jerusalem.
The resolution noted that "in August 2012, Supreme Leader Khamenei said of Israel, 'This bogus and fake Zionist outgrowth will disappear off the landscape of geography.'"
The resolution also said that if Israel is compelled to take military action against Iran in self-defense, the U.S. "should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence."
Tehran's nuclear advance
The IAEA's latest findings on Iran were part of a quarterly report released to the agency's board of governors Wednesday.
State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters that the agency has issued similar reports citing "concerns over Iran's nuclear program going back to June 2003."
"We're at the 10-year mark here," he said, "and in the past 10 years, Iran has brazenly ignored multiple board of governors resolutions while advancing its enrichment program in blatant violation of its international obligations."
The American focus on Iranian nuclear activities so far has centered largely on uranium enrichment plants at Natanz, roughly 200 miles south of Tehran, and Fordo, about 90 miles southwest of the Iranian capital.
Wednesday's IAEA report claimed that Iran has installed some 700 IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings, used to enrich uranium at Natanz, compared with 180 in February.
The report also cited construction activity at a facility near Arak, roughly 150 miles southwest of Tehran.
According to Reuters news agency, analysts say a research reactor being built at the facility could be designed to yield plutonium for nuclear arms if spent fuel from the reactor is reprocessed — something Iran has said it has no intention of doing.
The IAEA report found that major components for the reactor, including control room equipment, have not been put into place at the facility.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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