The US Senate unanimously approved a package of new economic sanctions on Iran’s oil sector yesterday. The move comes ahead of tomorrow’s meeting in Baghdad between the P5+1 powers (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) and Iran, to address international concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme. The new sanctions aims to build on penalties signed into law by US President Barack Obama in December, against foreign institutions trading with Iran’s central bank. Those sanctions have already cut deeply into Iran’s oil trade. This new package will extend sanctions to cover dealings with the National Iranian Oil Company and National Iranian Tanker Company. It aims to close potential loopholes. The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill in December and now the Senate and House must work out their differences in the legislation. ”This bill is another tool that will demonstrate to Iran that the United States is not backing down,” Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator who helped craft the legislation, said on the Senate floor. In related news, IAEA Director Yukiya Amano met with Iranian officials in Tehran yesterday in his continuing effort to secure access to sites where it is suspected that atomic weapons research has been conducted. The visit to Iran by Amano, his first since taking the post in 2009, raised speculation that Iranian officials are seeking to project greater flexibility ahead of the Baghdad talks, as they struggle to cope with mounting sanctions. However, the P5+1 negotiators will be wary of Iranian gestures designed to relieve the sanctions pressure, but which do not address core concerns, such as Iran’s continuing uranium enrichment.
Israeli leaders are continuing to press for a robust negotiating stance. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his position yesterday that world powers should make “clear and unequivocal demands” that Iran stop all of its nuclear enrichment activity. “Iran wants to destroy Israel and it is developing nuclear weapons to fulfill that goal,” Netanyahu said at a conference for civil servants in Jerusalem. “Against this malicious intention, leading world powers need to display determination and not weakness. They should not make any concessions to Iran.”