October 1, 2010 | AP

US Hits Iranian Energy Firm with Sanctions

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday slapped sanctions on a Swiss-based Iranian company involved in Iran’s oil and gas sector and claimed success in persuading several European energy firms to divest from the country.

The move comes as Washington steps up pressure on Iran to prove its nuclear program is peaceful and comes a day after it broadened its efforts to push reform in the Islamic republic by imposing financial and travel sanctions on eight senior Iranian officials accused of serious human rights abuses after last year’s disputed presidential elections.

In the latest step, the State Department placed the Naftiran Intertrade Company, a subsidiary of Iran’s national oil company, on a financial blacklist, barring it from doing business with or in the United States or with U.S. institutions.

At the same time, it spared four large European multinationals — Total of France, Statoil of Norway, ENI of Italy and Royal Dutch Shell of Britain and the Netherlands — from penalties because of their pledges to stop investing in Iran’s energy sector. Most of those companies had previously announced they were withdrawing from Iran.

Recently enacted legislation gives the administration the ability to penalize foreign companies that invest more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector. The law requires the administration to identify firms that meet that criterion but to waive sanctions against those it deems are taking steps to comply or in U.S. national security interests.

In announcing the sanctions against Naftiran, the State Department acnowledged that the penalties would have little immediate impact as the firm has no commercial activity in the United States. But, it said the sanctions would deter foreign companies from doing business with it.

The U.S. accuses Iran of using revenue from its energy sector, including hundreds of millions of dollars from Naftiran, to fund its suspect nuclear program and to hide purchases of dual-use equipment and technology.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said the sanctions would “further isolate the company from the international business community” and was part of a larger effort to “raise the cost of Iran’s refusal to meet its international obligations.”

Steinberg said that Total, Statoil, ENI and Royal Dutch Shell “have provided assurances to us that they have stopped or are taking significant, verifiable steps to stop their activity in Iran” and that they would continue to escape sanctions as long as they followed through with those pledges.

He said that the administration was launching investigations into a number of other foreign firms that had not yet pledged to stop business in Iran that could lead to sanctions. He would not name those companies or say where they were based. But analysts have identified firms from more than a dozen countries, including close U.S. allies, as potentially subject to sanctions.

A report released last month by the Iran Energy Project at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies listed companies in Australia, China, Denmark, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Turkey and Venezuela as having significant business ties with Iran’s energy sector.

Members of Congress were quick to weigh in the announcement. Many said they were pleased with the step but called for the administration to beef up its enforcement of the law by imposing more sanctions.

“We cannot stop here,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “We need to meaningfully implement the tough new sanctions law that Congress passed this summer, which holds every last company in business with Irans energy sector accountable, and cuts Iran off from the global economy until Iran’s rulers end their nuclear development.”

“I hope this is not as far as the executive branch is willing to go,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Critical questions concerning the big companies’ involvement with Iran remain unanswered. The heavy lifting remains undone.”

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