* Sanctions aim to deter Tehran nuclear program
* Despite oil reserves, Iran imports 40 pct of gasoline
* Experts say bill would raise prices but not cut supplies (Adds comments from lawmakers, Iran's gasoline imports)
By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON, Dec 15 The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation on Tuesday to impose sanctions on foreign companies that help supply gasoline to Iran, a move lawmakers hope will deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear program.
The bill authorizes President Barack Obama to levy sanctions on energy companies that directly provide gasoline to Iran along with the firms that provide insurance and tankers to facilitate the fuel shipments. The Senate is likely to approve a similar law, but it is uncertain how soon it will vote.
The legislation, which would expand an existing U.S. law that seeks to punish foreign companies that invest more than $20 million a year in Iran's energy sector.
"This bill has one overriding goal: To prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability," said Representative Howard Berman, co-sponsor of the legislation.
"We must use all the tools at our disposal, from diplomacy to sanctions, to stop Iran's march toward nuclear capability," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "By targeting Iran's ongoing dependence from largely imported refined petroleum we reduce the chance that Iran will acquire the capacity to produce nuclear weapons."
The legislation passed the House in a 412-to-12 vote.
The sanctions include preventing violating companies from getting financial assistance from U.S. institutions like the Export-Import Bank.
While Iran has some of the world's biggest oil reserves, it must import 40 percent of its gasoline to meet domestic demand because of a lack of refining capacity.
As the United States has stepped up pressure on companies doing business with Iran, a number of past suppliers like BP (BP.L) and Indian refiner Reliance (RELI.BO) have backed away from providing fuel, but imports have largely been maintained as companies like European trading firms Trafigura and Vitol, Kuwait-based International Petroleum Group and Malaysia's Petronas step into the breach, traders said.
There is concern the legislation could backfire on the United States if Iranian citizens blame America for supply shortages and higher gasoline prices that would likely result.
"There is nobody in the Iranian government ... that's not going to get their gasoline," said Representative Earl Blumenauer. "It's going to be impactful on the people of Iran."
"This will unify the Iranian people against us," Representative Ron Paul said.
Some energy experts have said fuel sanctions on Iran would raise prices but not stop supplies because the country has porous borders and a history of smuggling petroleum products.
Supporters of the legislation said the many Iranians upset over this summer's disputed presidential election would likely turn their anger toward the Iranian government.
"Before the regime's brutal effort to crush protests following the June 12th Iranian election, an Iranian cab driver who couldn't buy gasoline would probably curse the Americans," said Mark Dubowitz, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"After witnessing the brutal crackdown and his fellow citizens dying in the streets, he now might very well blame the regime," Dubowitz added.
The United States and five other major countries on Tuesday said that a planned meeting with Iran about its nuclear program will not take place this year because of scheduling conflicts, though talks will continue by telephone.
The group, which also includes Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, is worried that Iran's nuclear program could lead to weapons production. Tehran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes like generating electricity.
In October, negotiators offered Iran a deal that would send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad by the end of the year for further enrichment, but Tehran has backed away from it.
If a similar bill pending in the Senate passes, the final legislation would impose the harshest economic sanctions yet approved by Congress to protest Iran's nuclear program.
The State Department said there are parts of both bills it likes, and it will work to make sure the final version that emerges from Congress supports the administration's policy. (Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)