New sanctions are being imposed in a politically charged atmosphere.
WASHINGTON - The White House and Congress raced to impose more punishing sanctions against Iran on Tuesday as that country's nuclear ambitions resurfaced in the presidential election campaign after Mitt Romney pledged to give Israel unstinting support in its confrontation with Iran.
The new sets of measures, which target Iran's oil and petrochemical sectors as well as its shipping trade, intensify existing sanctions intended to choke off the revenue that Iran reaps from its two largest export industries. While they do not represent a quantum leap in pressure, they address a potential weakness in the continuing effort: Iran's increasingly adroit maneuvering to circumvent sanctions by selling its oil through foreign banks or for alternative means of payment, such as gold.
The flurry of activity on Capitol Hill and at the White House reflects both diplomatic and domestic political calculations. Negotiations over Iran's nuclear program are at a standstill after several months, leaving many in Congress frustrated and administration officials conceding that the pressure campaign has not made Iran's leaders change course.
Election-year politics have also supercharged the atmosphere, with Romney suggesting during a weekend visit to Israel that, if elected, he would take a far tougher line against Iran than President Obama. These latest sanctions, like previous measures against Iran, have drawn lopsided bipartisan support in Congress.
Even though the White House measures were announced just days after Romney's comments in Israel, officials said they had nothing to do with Romney's statements. Both the administration's and congressional sanctions have been in the works for months. Campaign officials also said that for all his criticism, Romney offered prescriptions for dealing with Tehran that do not differ much from the president's.
"Romney likes to sound tougher on Iran, but when you really delve into the specifics, there's not a lot of difference there from what the administration has done or is already doing," said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who is an adviser to the Obama campaign.
'Imperiled our allies'
A spokesman for Romney, Ryan Williams, said in a statement released after the sanctions were announced that Obama's reluctance to confront Iran "has imperiled our allies and jeopardized our national security."
He also cited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that the diplomatic efforts had not made an "iota" of difference in Iran's behavior.
The White House and Congress have clashed over how to deal with Iran: The last major Iran sanctions bill was passed over the heated objections of the administration. But this time, the White House worked closely with lawmakers. Officials said Obama's executive order was designed to complement the legislation, not to preempt or derail it.
After weeks of negotiation, House and Senate leaders agreed late Monday on new measures targeting Iran. The bill would impose sanctions on anyone who mines uranium with Iran; sells, leases or provides oil tankers to Iran, or provides insurance to the state-run shipping line.
Vote today in House possible
The House was set to vote as soon as Wednesday, while the Senate leaders also signaled they would move the legislation forward quickly.
"The idea is to up the ante to the greatest extent possible," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "From a foreign policy standpoint, trying to find every possible way to up the ante makes sense."
Administration officials took pains to point out the economic damage sanctions have already inflicted on Iran. European and U.S. sanctions have driven down its oil exports by 40 percent to 50 percent, depriving Iran of $9 billion in revenue every quarter, said Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special adviser on nonproliferation. Iran's currency also has tumbled.
Most measures announced by the White House on Tuesday seek to close loopholes in earlier sanctions. The United States will now blacklist any financial institution that receives payments for Iranian oil, which will prevent Iran from using foreign banks or its national oil company, in lieu of the Central Bank of Iran, as an agent to process oil transactions. A loophole remains, though: Twenty countries that have been exempted by the United States from existing sanctions because they made significant reductions in oil purchases would also be exempted from these latest measures.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.