The Obama administration reacted cautiously to today's International
Atomic Energy Agency report
on Iran's nuclear weapons program and declined to say how exactly how they
would respond. But across Washington, suggestions for tightening the noose on
the Iranian regime were abundant.
"I'm definitely going to tell you we need time to study it,"
State Department spokeswoman Victoria
Nuland told reporters on Tuesday following the release of the IAEA report,
which alleges that Iran had until 2003 an intricate and extensive program to design and
build a nuclear warhead to fit atop a Shabaab-3 missile. The report also stated
that Iran worked on components for such a warhead, prepared for nuclear tests,
and maintained aspects of the program well past 2003 -- activities that may
still be ongoing today.
"I think you know the process here: that after a report like
this comes out, we also have a scheduled meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors
coming up on November 18th, so Iran will be an agenda item at
that meeting. So we will take the time between now and then to study this,"
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon,
two senior administration officials predicted that the Obama administration
would increase sanctions on Iran in light of the report but declined to offer
any specifics on what they might be.
That explanation wasn't well received by lawmakers in both
parties on Tuesday, who offered plenty of specific ideas on how to ramp up
pressure on Tehran and have no intention of waiting for the administration to "study"
the IAEA's findings.
The Cable spoke on
Tuesday with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA),
Mark Kirk (R-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the report.
"It's of enormous concern to everybody and a lot of
conversations are taking place right now about how to respond," Kerry told The Cable. "It clearly means we have to
ratchet up on Iran, probably tougher sanctions and other things."
Kerry declined to endorse one big idea floating around town,
namely to take actions that would collapse the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and
ruin the country's currency, bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.
"There are a lot of options, you want to pick them carefully
and you want to be thoughtful about what's going to be effective," Kerry said.
Kirk, who co-authored
a letter in August with Sen. Chuck
Schumer (D-NY) calling for collapsing the CBI, and which was signed by 92
senators, tweeted today that
the White House's reaction to the report Tuesday constituted "national security
Kirk met with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley on Monday night to give him
the "hard sell" on the idea of collapsing the CBI, he told The Cable. Kirk said that the concept under consideration is to
give friendly countries that are dependent on Iranian oil -- such as Japan,
South Korea, and Turkey -- a time window to shift their purchases from Iran to
Kirk and Schumer are planning to introduce a bill soon that
would be a Senate companion to an
amendment by Rep. Howard Berman
(D-CA) to require the president to determine within 30 days the CBI's role in
Iran's illicit activities. If the president determines that the CBI is
complicit, the bill would require the administration to cut off any foreign
banks doing business with the CBI from participating in the U.S. financial
The main risk in collapsing the CBI is that it could bring
down the Iranian oil industry along with it, risking a cascading effect on
world energy markets that would exacerbate the global economic crisis.
McCain told The Cable
today that it's a risk he is willing to take. "Libya is cranking up their oil
exports. There's always risk, but there's a greater risk when you know that
they're about to become nuclear weaponized," he said.
"The first thing we should do is talk to the Russians and
the Chinese and tell them to get with it and pass the increased sanctions
through the U.N.," McCain said, adding that the Obama has leverage against
Russian and China if it chooses to use it. "Russia wants in the WTO, China
wants a lot of things. There should be consequences for their failure to act."
Graham agreed that the negative impact of collapsing the CBI
was a necessary cost of ramping up pressure on Iran.
"We've got make a decision: What's the biggest threat to the
world, a nuclear-armed Iran or sanctions that would hurt us and the people of
Iran?" Graham told The Cable. "You've
got two choices, the policy of containment or the policy of preemption. I'm in
the preemption camp. I don't think containment works. The only way to stop this
is to prevent this and that means changing behavior."
Graham said existing sanctions don't seem to be working, which
means that the sanctions regime has to be fundamentally changed. "If that
doesn't work, the other option is military force." But Graham cautioned that if
there were to be a military strike on Iran, it would have to include a massive
assault on Iran's counterattacking capabilities.
"You'd have to destroy their air force, sink their navy, and
deal with their long-range missile threat. So you'd have to go in big," he
said. "If you attack Iran you open Pandora's box. If you allow Iran to get a
nuclear weapon, you empty Pandora's box. So these are not good choices."
Sen. Joe Lieberman
(I-CT) said in a statement that the threat of military force must be credible
and he called for Congress to pass a new Iran sanctions bill, one that the
said was unnecessary.
have each unveiled a version of the bill that would tighten existing sanctions,
compel the administration to enforce penalties already on the books, and levy a
host of new restrictions against members of Iran's regime and companies that
aid Iran's energy, banking, and arms sectors. The bills are a follow-up to the
Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) that
Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed in July 2010.
Former Treasury Department official Matthew Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, told The Cable that
there's no consensus yet inside the administration or around the world that
collapsing the CBI would be possible without doing severe damage to the world
But Levitt offered several things the administration can do
immediately to ramp up pressure on Iran, including pressuring countries to
scale back Iranian diplomatic presence in their capitals, restricting the
travel of Iranian officials around the world, and setting up a multilateral
customs body to enforce sanctions against Iran, modeled after what was done in
wake of the Kosovo crisis.
"The administration is not being creative enough with the
tools they have," Levitt said. In the coming days, he predicted, "You are going
to see scrambling as to what can be done."