White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
A congressional deadline for the Obama administration to begin enforcing new financial penalties on foreign firms that do business with Iran passed Wednesday with no fresh action from Washington.
While some congressional authors of a bill President Barack Obama signed Dec. 31 expected the administration to announce new punishments against foreign banks, the Treasury Department said it did not have the authority to take that step now.
Top administration officials instead pointed to success in persuading friendly countries and financial institutions to cut ties with the Islamic republic on their own.
The legislation gave the administration 60 days to investigate private foreign financial institutions engaged in nonpetroleum transactions with Iran's powerful Central Bank. That is a run up to heavier sanctions on Iran's lucrative oil business that take effect this summer.
The White House hopes that tough commitment to financial pressure will persuade Israel to back away from the possibility of launching a military strike on Iran, an approach the U.S. believes would be shortsighted. Obama will make that case directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday when the two leaders meet at the White House.
Some in Washington expected Obama to strengthen his position ahead of the high-stakes meeting by announcing fresh economic penalties that went into effect Wednesday. The penalties were included in a law Obama signed on Dec. 31.
The administration chose not to take immediate action, and officials disagreed about when they could. A Treasury official said the administration has been identifying financial institutions that may be involved with transactions that could be sanctioned so they would be prepared to act following the deadline.
A senior Senate aide involved in Iran sanctions said that by not announcing new penalties Wednesday, the administration had failed to comply with the law as it was intended.
Both officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In testimony on Capitol Hill and private negotiations with major allies around the world, Obama administration officials insisted sanctions already levied on Iran were working and that more economic pressure can thwart Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
Secretary of State Hillary Rhodium Clinton told Congress the administration is having success in pushing U.S. allies to cut ties with Iran on their own rather than face American sanctions.
"We have faced some challenges because even some of our very best friends have to make serious adjustments in order to comply," Clinton said. "But we've laid the groundwork so that they understand that ... this is an important international commitment, and they're stepping up."
The legislation said that "beginning on the date that is 60 days after the date of the enactment of this act, the president shall prohibit" any privately owned foreign financial institutions from engaging in significant nonoil transactions with Iran's Central Bank. Oil sanctions would be added later under the same legislation.
The United States would have had ample examples of foreign firms that have continued to do lucrative business with the powerful Iranian central bank since December.
"Our approach right now is to continue to pursue the diplomatic path that we've taken, combined with very aggressive sanctions," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "There is time and space to continue to pursue the policy that we have been pursuing since the president took office."
Since the United States does little real business with Iran, its economic leverage comes largely from the threat of U.S. financial punishment against foreign governments or businesses.
Iran has an extensive international trade network, including long-standing economic relationships with many U.S. allies. Since long before the current crisis over a possible Israeli strike, the U.S. has taken a cautious approach to punishing friendly foreign entities.
The sanctions that went into effect Wednesday put the White House in the awkward position of choosing whether to punish financial institutions in countries that are friendly to the U.S., mainly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The U.S. has approached financial institutions around the world to caution them to stop doing business with Iranian banks.
One such institution, the Dubai-based Noor Islamic Bank, said Wednesday that it had stopped doing business with Iranian banks in December, shortly before Obama signed the defense bill into law. Noor appears to have acted, at least indirectly, in response to Washington's efforts to tighten the screws on Tehran.
"When we became aware in December 2011, that unilateral U.S. sanctions were to be applied against a number of Iranian banks, we took pre-emptive action to end our business relationships with Iranian banks licensed in the UAE," the bank said.
Dubai, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, is a major Middle East banking and commercial hub and an important trading center for Iranian merchants. It is one of seven semiautonomous sheikdoms that comprise the United Arab Emirates, an important U.S. ally.
Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert advising the administration on Iran, said announcing more penalties Wednesday would have sent a message that the administration was serious about sanctions enforcement.
"I think it would have been wise to have welcomed the prime minister with a show of force on the economic warfare front," Dubowitz said of the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu.
Israel has largely stayed out of the debate about specific sanctions. Israel has made the case to U.S. officials privately that its decision whether to attack Iran is based on its own calculations about when such a strike would be effective.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington Tuesday and Wednesday for unusually private meetings with the Pentagon and White House. Neither the White House nor Israel offered details of Barak's meetings Tuesday with Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
A Pentagon spokesman said Barak and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "discussed the U.S.-Israel defense relationship and a range of regional issues including Syria, Iran, and the ongoing changes in the Middle East."