By: Matthew Lee, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration slapped sanctions Tuesday on a state-owned energy company in Belarus over a $500 million investment with an Iranian firm accused of contributing to Iran's suspect nuclear program.
The move is part of U.S. efforts to restrict Iran's ability to improve its atomic capabilities that Washington and others suspect are aimed at developing nuclear weapons. But it was derided as not enough by U.S. lawmakers who said the sanctions should have been applied to a larger number of companies, including some in Russia and China.
The State Department announced it had hit Belarusneft with penalties that cut its access to U.S. markets over a 2007 contract it signed with NaftIran Intertrade Co. to develop Iran's Jofeir oilfield. The penalties include a ban on U.S. export licenses, loans and government contracts.
The sanctions were imposed under U.S. laws that seek to punish Iran for failing to prove its nuclear program is peaceful by penalizing foreign businesses that invest in its energy sector. The United States says such investments help support the Iranian nuclear program.
Belarusneft is the second company to be hit with sanctions under the legislation that President Barack Obama signed in 2010 with broad bipartisan support.
The law requires the administration to identify and impose sanctions on foreign companies that invest more than $20 million in Iran's oil and gas sector but allows the president to waive the sanctions for national security reasons.
Some in Congress, mainly Republicans, said Tuesday that the administration had not gone far enough in its announcement.
Republican senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Jon Kyl of Arizona along with Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman complained in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that the administration had "designated only one additional entity for violating U.S. sanctions with regard to Iran."
"We do not believe this represents full compliance with the sanctions regime put in place by Congress," they wrote. "We are deeply concerned with what appear to be sanctionable activities by other entities involving energy investments in Iran, the provision of refined petroleum products to Iran, financial relationships with Iran, as well as the regime's proliferation activities."
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had similar objections, saying "the conspicuous absence of any sanctions on Russian and Chinese companies, despite their long-standing involvement in Iran, is deeply troubling."
"In addition to going after the low-hanging fruit like Belarusneft, the State Department must impose sanctions against energy giants that continue to do business with Iran," she said in a statement. "That's the only way that our sanctions will have the force to compel the Iranian regime to stop policies and programs that threaten the United States."
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