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’s pledge 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, like 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 lawmakers frustrated and administration officials conceding that the pressure campaign has not persuaded Iran’s leaders to change course.
Election-year politics have also supercharged the political atmosphere, with Romney, the presumptive Republican challenger, suggesting during a weekend visit to Israel that he would take a far tougher line against Iran than President Barack 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’s prescriptions for dealing with Tehran 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 H. Kahl, a former Pentagon official who is an adviser to the Obama campaign. “A lot of this is Romney describing our current policy and masquerading it as criticism of the president.”