WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration officials faced the prospect of contentious questioning Thursday from lawmakers about reports that China and India are significantly expanding imports of Iranian petroleum.
When world powers reached an interim nuclear deal with Iran three months ago, U.S. officials stressed that they weren't easing oil trade restrictions against Tehran. This month, President Barack Obama threatened to come down like a "ton of bricks" on countries that circumvent those penalties.
Nevertheless, Chinese imports of Iranian crude have jumped nearly 30 percent since November compared with the previous six months, according to government data. Some reports suggest Indian imports doubled in January; U.S. officials believe the growth was far more modest.
Some lawmakers are concerned. Aides to two members of Congress said their bosses planned to raise the issue at a classified briefing Thursday by the State Department's nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and the Treasury Department's sanctions chief, David Cohen.
"We obviously are watching this closely in keeping with the expectation that we have that all nations will abide by their commitments under the sanctions regime," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. He said import levels can fluctuate month to month, and the critical test is whether they grow "over a longer period of time."
The administration and Congress see economic pressure as the primary leverage to get Iran to accept tighter conditions on uranium enrichment activity and to abandon plans for plutonium production. The goal is a final agreement this year that builds on the interim accord and makes it impossible for Tehran to surreptitiously develop nuclear weapons.
November's agreement provided the Iranian economy up to $7 billion in relief from the economic penalties in exchange for a series of limits on the nuclear program, which Iran insists is designed solely for peaceful energy and medical research purposes. The deal was supposed to keep Iranian oil exports at about 1 million to 1.1 million barrels per day.