Chris Schneidmiller
Global Security Newswire
October 17, 2011

WASHINGTON — Members of a key House of Representatives panel on Friday pressed for a U.S. policy that focuses on penalizing Iran rather than pursuing still-unrealized hopes for direct dialogue with Washington’s longtime antagonist.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee met only days after senior administration officials disclosed an alleged attempt backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.

The reputed provocation emerged as the United States continues to struggle to curb Iran’s suspected efforts to develop a nuclear-weapon capability.

“On Oct. 11, 2011, the United States’ approach to the Iranian regime should have [undergone] a major change,” committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in her opening remarks at a hearing on Iran and Syria. “On that day, it was revealed that the Iranian regime was actively planning an attack on a foreign diplomat in the United States and was willing and able to kill and maim innocent Americans in the process.”

Despite pledges from President Obama and members of his Cabinet that Iran would face punishing new U.S. sanctions, Ros-Lehtinen on Friday said witnesses at a Senate hearing the previous days had indicated that there would be no change to the administration’s program to deal with Iran through a combination of economic pressure and diplomacy.

Obama at the beginning of his term said bilateral diplomatic engagement was among the tools he was willing to use to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear weapons drive. Tehran has said it would be open to talks under certain conditions; however, such a meeting has not materialized and Iran and has not bowed to U.S. and international sanctions or indirect threats of force.

Meetings between Iranian officials and representatives of the United States and five other world powers, held in December 2010 and January of this year, also failed to demonstrate progress on the nuclear standoff.

Committee members said the administration must give up hope of what Ros-Lehtinen called a “grand bargain” with Iran. There was talk instead of stepping up penalties, with a focus on sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran.

“I’m deeply concerned that we’re pursuing essentially the same Iran policy as we had on Jan. 20 back in 2009,” when President Obama was inaugurated, “namely engagement and pressure,” said Representative Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). “After three years it’s safe to say that this policy has failed.”

The United States and other leading nations have spent years attempting to negotiate a halt to Iranian uranium enrichment operations that could be used to produce weapon-grade nuclear material. Washington has not been persuaded by Tehran’s assertion that its nuclear program has no military component.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the Obama administration wants the International Atomic Energy Agency to make public classified data that would point more clearly to Iran’s efforts to produce a nuclear weapon (see related GSN story, today).

Congress last year passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act, which authorizes the president to impose sanctions on people, businesses or government entities with investments or other involvement in the Middle Eastern state’s oil sector.

Follow-up legislation sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen this year is intended to further isolate Iran from the global economy.

“The single question I have for the witnesses regarding Iran today is: What’s left? Because unless you mean to apply more pressure to Iran — diplomatically, politically and economically — we’re near the point where other options will have to be considered,” said Representative Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). “For a variety of reasons, I think we’d like to avoid those options if we can.”

While the United States is leaning harder on Iran, the pressure is not even close to being sufficient to persuade the leadership in Tehran to give up its nuclear program, Ackerman said.

Two senior officials from the State and Treasury departments sought to counter any idea that the administration has not been serious in its attempts to resolve the impasse. They said the squeeze would continue.

The administration blacklisted five people last week as it announced the reputed murder plot, said Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of State for political affairs. Four of the sanctioned individuals were said to be high-ranking personnel in the Quds Force. The Treasury Department has also penalized a major Iranian airline it says is linked to the Quds Force.

The allegation is that an Iranian-born U.S. citizen received money from his cousin, a top officer in the elite Quds Force, to kill Riyadh’s envoy to Washington. The reputed plan unraveled when the former Texas used-car dealer solicited assistance from Mexican drug operators, only to make contact with an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Washington Post reported.

Iran has dismissed the alleged plot as a U.S. fabrication. The case has also been submitted at Saudi Arabia’s request to the U.N. Security Council, which could issue additional sanctions against Iran.

Sherman said the set of U.S. economic penalties now placed on Tehran is the “toughest” in 30 years. The list of sanctions targets has continued to grow under the 2010 legislation, and nations including Australia, Canada, Norway and South Korea have followed suit in adding financial measures against Tehran, she said.

“Our policy toward Iran is to get them to verifiably end their nuclear weapons program and their nuclear weapons ambition,” Sherman said. “There is no question about that, and we are quite unambiguous about that objective.”

There has been a significant reduction over the past year in the count of banks willing to do business with Iran, said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Under questioning from Ros-Lehtinen, Sherman said that the administration, rather than looking to simply engage with Tehran, is seeking an entryway to talks that would culminate in the dissolution of the Middle Eastern state’s nuclear-weapon program.

Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, said there is growing backing for penalizing the Central Bank of Iran, which sets the nation’s monetary policy and manages petroleum revenue. What is needed, according to Ackerman, is a way to cut off all Iranian banking institutions from their ability to conduct business on a global scale.

Berman asked Cohen whether the Obama administration was trying to establish multilateral support for such a program.

The Treasury official responded that the administration is pursuing multilateral consensus regarding action against the central bank, which he said is already fully disconnected from business with any U.S. financial entity.

“I can assure the committee … all options to increase the financial pressure on Iran are on the table, including the possibility of imposing additional sanctions against the CBI,” Cohen said in his opening remarks.

Representative Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted that the central bank has been connected to Iran’s efforts to skirt U.S. sanctions and in providing funding to the nation’s nuclear program. Citing a statement from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, he questioned whether the administration is keeping “all options … on the table” in dealing with the bank.

“We already have cut off all U.S. connections and relationships with the central bank,” Sherman responded. “The question is whether we can do so in a way internationally that we can sustain.”

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