By David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama ramped up economic sanctions against Iran Tuesday, targeting that nation's oil sales and financial transactions.
Again pledging to block Iran from developing the means to make a nuclear weapon, Obama said in a statement: "With these actions, we are once again reaffirming our commitment to hold the Iranian government accountable for its actions."
Obama said the United States remains committed to a diplomatic solution of the nuclear dispute, "but the onus is on Iran to abide by its international obligations."
The announcement comes less than a week after Republican election opponent Mitt Romney visited Israel, also pledging to prevent Iran from being able to develop a nuclear weapon.
The debate over Iran takes place amid concern that Israel might launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran in an effort to knock out its nuclear facilities.
Romney aides pointed out that, during the GOP candidate's recent visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian (nuclear) program by one iota And that's why I believe that we need a strong and credible military threat coupled with the sanctions to have a chance to change that situation."
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams cited Netanyahu's comments in saying that Obama "has allowed Iran's nuclear ambitions to proceed unimpeded. ... The president's refusal to take a tough stance when it comes to Iran has imperiled our allies and jeopardized our national security."
White House officials said sanctions have slowed Iran's economy and lowered the value of its currency; they cited comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the sanctions have hurt.
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad described the prospect of new sanctions on the Iranian oil industry as "ridiculous."
"It's very funny," he said. "They use oil as a political weapon against a country that is an oil producer itself."
Said Obama in his statement: "If the Iranian government continues its defiance, there should be no doubt that the United States and our partners will continue to impose increasing consequences."
This is the fifth set of sanctions leveled against Iran in the past year; they are designed to get at Iranian efforts to evade earlier sanctions.
The package includes an executive order designed, Obama said. to prevent new "payment mechanisms for the purchase of Iranian oil to circumvent existing sanctions." The White House said countries that have already agreed to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil are exempt from the new order.
Other sanctions target two specific banks -- Bank of Kunlun of China and Elaf Islamic Bank of Iraq -- that have "facilitated transactions worth millions of dollars on behalf of Iranian banks that are subject to sanctions for their links to Iran's illicit proliferation activities," Obama said.
The president also warned: "We will expose any financial institution, no matter where they are located, that allows the increasingly desperate Iranian regime to retain access to the international financial system."