WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration cracked down Thursday on oil and shipping companies accused of helping Iran evade economic sanctions, even as top officials continued pressing Congress to delay enacting additional restrictions while nuclear talks with Iran are underway.
The enforcement actions against Asian, European and Iranian firms were announced moments before two of the administration's top experts on Iran appeared before a Senate panel to warn again that the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran could doom any chance of a diplomatic agreement halting the country's nuclear advances.
The officials cited the new enforcement measures as evidence that the administration intends to keep steady pressure on Iran until a final agreement is reached on permanent limits to its nuclear program.
"We will continue to take action against those who evade, or attempt to evade, our manifold sanctions on Iran," David Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at a Senate Banking Committee hearing. Despite an agreement last month granting Iran temporary relief from some sanctions, "Iran is still off-limits" for most oil and banking transactions, he said.
The enforcement measures announced by the Treasury Department targeted firms that allegedly assisted Iranian companies by either transporting petroleum products or acting as middlemen in transferring payments to Iranian banks -- actions that violate economic sanctions enacted over the past two years. Administration officials also blacklisted several Iranian companies involved in the country's uranium-mining sector.
A senior U.S. official, in briefing reporters about the measures, sought to distinguish the administration's efforts to enforce existing sanctions from the attempts by some in Congress to add additional restrictions on Iran's battered economy.
"The sanctions framework that remains in place will allow us to continue to apply pressure on the Iranian government and the Iranian economy," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe legal underpinnings on the enforcement measures.
The announcement of the measures came amid maneuvering in Congress, as lawmakers debated whether to push for new sanctions legislation in defiance of the administration's warnings. Key Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, have criticized the proposed preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran on grounds that it doesn't go far enough in dismantling Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
Iran has said its program is for peaceful energy-producing purposes, despite suspicions that Tehran is seeking to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb.
The legislative skirmishing coincided with technical talks in Geneva on how to implement the first phase of the landmark nuclear deal reached Nov. 24 in the same Swiss city. That agreement freezes key parts of Iran's nuclear program for six months while diplomats try to hammer out a permanent accord on deeper cuts to Iran's nuclear program.
Negotiators from Iran and six major powers have been hashing over details such as schedules for intensive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, including its uranium enrichment plants and uranium mines. The head of the Iranian delegation to the technical talks, Hamid Baeedinejad, described the tone of the meetings as "very smooth."
Wendy Sherman, the State Department's undersecretary for political affairs, who also testified at Thursday's Senate hearing, said those talks could collapse if Congress imposes new sanctions. Ms. Sherman said both Iran and key U.S. allies abroad would perceive the United States as acting in bad faith, potentially undermining international support for the very sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table.
Although lawmakers can act quickly later if Iran reneges on its pledges, it is vital for Congress to "keep its powder dry for the moment, so we can keep our partners on board," she said.