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Obama clears way for oil sanctions to squeeze Iran

By Julie Pace and Ben Feller

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:05 p.m. HST, Mar 30, 2012



WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama is moving ahead with tough new sanctions aimed at squeezing Iran's oil exports after determining there is enough crude on world markets to take the step without harming U.S. allies, The Associated Press has learned.

Obama's move allows the U.S. to go forward with sanctions on foreign banks that continue to purchase oil from Iran. The sanctions aim to further isolate Iran's central bank, which processes nearly all of the Islamic Republic's oil purchases, from the global economy.

U.S. officials hope ratcheting up economic pressure will both push Iran to abandon its disputed nuclear program and convince Israel to give sanctions time to take hold before pursuing a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The U.S. and allies believe that Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb; Iran denies that.

The congressionally mandated sanctions target foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran's central bank — barring them from operating in the U.S. to buy or sell Iranian oil. The penalties are to take effect at the end of June, around the same time Europe's embargo on Iranian oil kicks in.

Countries can still avoid the sanctions if they take steps to significantly reduce their imports before then.

Under a sweeping defense bill Obama signed at the end of December, the president had until today to determine if there was enough oil supply on the world market to allow countries to cut their oil purchases from Iran. A formal White House statement was expected later today.

A congressional source briefed on Obama's determination spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity ahead of the formal White House announcement.

Domestic and foreign policy concerns have complicated the administration's decision to pursue the oil sanctions.

Many of the countries that buy oil from Iran are U.S. allies, including several European Union nations, Japan, South Korea and India. In order to provide flexibility to countries friendly to the U.S., the sanctions bill allows the U.S. to grant waivers to nations that significantly reduce their purchases of Iranian oil.

Even before today's decision, the State Department announced that it would grant waivers to 10 European Union countries and Japan because of steps they have already taken to cut back on Iranian oil. An E.U. oil embargo, approved in January, is set to take effect in July.

The United States. has not said what constitutes a significant reduction in Iranian oil purchases, and analysts believe the administration could use different metrics for different countries.

With oil prices already rising this year amid rising tensions over the nuclear dispute between Iran and the west, U.S. officials have sought assurances that pushing countries to stop buying from Iran would not cause a further spike in prices.

That's particularly important for Obama in an election year that has seen an increasing focus on gas prices.

Administration officials say a February report from the Energy Information Administration shows there is excess oil supply on the global market. But the report also showed that prices are high.

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Pace reported from Burlington, Vt.







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