United States politicians have passed a bill to tighten sanctions on Iran, days before president-elect Hassan Rouhani is sworn in and in contrast to concilatory language from US President Barack Obama.
The bill, which passed 400 to 20 in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, would cut Iran's oil exports by another one million barrels per day over a year. It is the first sanctions bill to put a number on exactly how much Iran's oil exports would be cut.
Exports of Iranian crude reported by buyers fell to 800,000 barrels a day in June from 1.25 million in May, the International Energy Agency said in July.
Previous US and European Union sanctions have reduced Iran's oil exports by more than half. The United States has worked with Iran's top oil consumers including China, Japan and South Korea to push them toward alternative suppliers.
The bill still has to be passed in the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama before becoming law. A similar measure is to be introduced in the Senate next month, though it is uncertain whether the language to cut exports by one million barrels a day will survive.
National security priority
Congressman Ed Royce, a California Republican and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who introduced the bill, said the US had no higher national security priority than preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
"New president or not, I am convinced that Iran's Supreme Leader intends to continue on this path," Royce said.
The vote showed a growing disagreement between the White House and Congress on Iran policy. A senior administration official said the White House was not opposed to new sanctions in principle, but wanted to give Rouhani a chance.
Critics said the bill was an aggressive message to send before Rouhani's swearing in on Sunday.
One of the 20 congressmen to vote against the bill, Jim McDermott, a Washington-state Democrat, said shortly before the vote that the rush to sanction Iran before Rouhani takes office could hurt efforts to deflate the nuclear issue.
"It's a dangerous sign to send and it limits our ability to find a diplomatic solution to nuclear arms in Iran," McDermott said.
Good cop, bad cop
Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, said the House action undermined the prevailing US strategy: The White House has long taken a softer stance toward Iran's nuclear programme, and Congress has taken a tougher one.
But now there are signs that the good cop cannot control the bad cop, he said. "The impression on the Iranian side is not that its good cop bad cop, but complete chaos and mayhem," Parsi said.
The bill also further denies Iran governments access to foreign currency reserves, and targets Iranian efforts to
circumvent international sanctions against its shipping.
Rowhani, 64, officially assumes power as Iran's highest elected office at a ceremony on Saturday. He will receive the formal endorsement of the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following his surprise election triumph in June.