US lawmakers introduce new Iran sanctions bill

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers were introducing legislation on Wednesday that would tighten sanctions on Iran, even as Teheran agreed to future talks with world powers over its contested nuclear drive.

The bipartisan House bill would allow President Barack Obama to impose penalties on foreign entities that provide Iran with goods to help maintain its struggling economy.

The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 also would provide Mr Obama with broader authority to target strategic imports, such as mining or power generating equipment that could help Iran with its nuclear programme, which the West and Israel say is a front for weapons development.

"Iran's continued march toward nuclear weapons is the gravest threat facing the United States and our allies," said bill sponsor Ed Royce, Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Co-sponsor Eliot Engel, the committee's top Democrat, added that the bill aims to "tighten the screws on Iran until the regime abandons its nuclear weapons programme.

"I hope this crisis can be resolved through diplomacy, but words cannot be a substitute for action, and the US must keep all options on the table," he added.

The bill would designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation.

Such designations are made through the State Department, but the bill, should it pass Congress, would compel the secretary of state to determine whether the group should be placed on its list of foreign terrorist groups.

Such a listing would subject the IRGC to additional sanctions. The Revolutionary Guards are already subject to United Nations sanctions.

Similar language was inserted into Senate legislation in 2007, sparking intense debate, but the bill never became law.

The House legislation also provides for stiffer penalties for human rights violators by applying existing financial sanctions to transactions that involve such violators.

"This bipartisan legislation ramps up the pressure on Iran's regime, especially targeting those brutalizing the many Iranians demanding their human rights," Mr Royce said.

Iran is already under the toughest sanctions regime ever devised, including four separate UN resolutions. The measures are aimed at forcing the country to rein in its nuclear programme, which Teheran insists is purely peaceful.

The sanctions are biting hard, slashing oil revenue and pushing the country close to recession as it seeks ways such as bartering to stay afloat, a US Government Accountability Office report said Tuesday.

News of the proposed bill comes just as Iran concluded a key meeting in Kazakhstan with P5+1 powers - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - aimed at easing the nuclear standoff.

A revised P5+1 offer reportedly involves easing sanctions on Iran's gold and precious metals trade while simultaneously lifting some restrictions on its banking operations.

But they still want Iran to halt enriching uranium to 20 per cent, which for the international community is the most worrisome part of Iran's activities.

"Things are taking a turning point and I think the Almaty meeting will be (seen as) a milestone," Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Vienna. The sides agreed to hold new talks in March and April.