Lawmakers hit the White House on Iran, say urgency is lacking

In a rare outpouring of bipartisan criticism, lawmakers Thursday charged that the White House is not moving aggressively enough to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate hammered administration officials for what they said is a lack of urgency about Tehran’s nuclear work.

“There is a … sense of urgency in our country, but there doesn’t seem to be an administration policy that is commensurate with that urgency,” Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said.

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Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) added that “the clock is ticking,” referring to an International Atomic Energy Agency report released last month that concluded Tehran is closer than ever to fielding a nuclear weapon. That finding started a drumbeat of calls from lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates to take steps beyond economic sanctions.

Risch said he sees a clear “urgency gap” between the White House’s slower approach and lawmakers’ desire to enact more immediate measures.

Administration officials defended their efforts to counter Iran’s illicit arms program. David Cohen, undersecretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said “there is no issue that focuses attention more” on the executive branch than the threat from Iran.

“We feel that sense of urgency every day,” Cohen said.

Administration officials reiterated that they are focused on gaining international consensus for sanctions targeting the Central Bank of Iran. The idea is to limit the bank’s revenue, which would make it harder for the country’s government to pay for expensive nuclear weapons work.

Casey said the administration’s “steady effort” to squeeze the Iranian regime with sanctions isn’t going to cut it.

“We all want a steady effort, but this has moved way beyond where we were” even a few months ago, Casey said.

He asked Cohen and Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of State for political affairs, how long it will be before the sanctions effort brings down Iran’s nuclear program. Neither would offer an estimate.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) clashed with State and Treasury department officials who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over a plan he and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) offered as an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill. 

Menendez and Kirk want to prohibit any U.S. financial entity from engaging in transactions with any foreign government, central bank or other financial firm that does business with the Central Bank of Iran. Administration officials strongly opposed that approach, saying it could drive up global oil prices and dissuade allies from joining efforts to further isolate Tehran.

Menendez accused administration officials of concealing their opposition to his plan, which is expected to pass the Senate easily on Thursday. 

“We need to cut off the fuel!” Menendez roared at Sherman and Cohen. Menendez contended that the approach he is offering with Kirk would be more effective than the administration’s.

Several lawmakers noted that Iran’s illicit weapons goal is one of the top issues that comes up when they travel to Europe and the Middle East, as both would be in range of a nuclear-tipped Iranian missile.

Iran will almost certainly be a dominant issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

President Obama is expected to hit the trail sounding the same refrain he has since taking office: that the United States is wiling to engage in good-faith negotiations with Iran, but will continue tightening the noose with sanctions until that happens.

The two front-runners in the GOP race, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, are split on what should be done about Iran.

Gingrich supports a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites and says the country’s leaders must be forced out “before they get a nuclear weapon without a war, which beats replacing them by a war.”

Romney said a military strike on Iran should be considered a “last resort.”

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Only Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) raised the possibility of war with Iran at Thursday’s hearing.

Corker asked for — but did not receive — an answer from the State and Treasury officials on the question of whether U.S. officials and allies are drawing up military plans to take out Iran’s nuclear sites.

Sherman noted Obama’s insistence that the military option must remain on the table. She also said that weighing a military strike versus sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran “is a tough, compelling calculation — but I don’t think we have to go there today.”