Lawmakers sound warning on Iran, give Obama latitude in response to plot

Lawmakers reacted with alarm Wednesday to the foiled bombing plot allegedly hatched in Iran, with some more hawkish members carefully suggesting that military retaliation should not be ruled out.

The Justice Department’s announcement that it charged two men linked to the Iranian government with conspiring to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia prompted a wave of denunciations on Capitol Hill. 

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), said the plot would have amounted to an “act of war” against the United States and its allies.

“This is definitely a new chapter and a dark chapter in our relationship with Iran,” King said in an interview. “This has crossed a red line.”

King and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Obama administration should expel Iranian diplomats from the United States.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying World Freedom Caucus wants budget reforms attached to debt limit increase Trey Gowdy announces retirement from Congress MORE (R-Ohio) called the alleged terror scheme “a serious breach of international behavior” and urged the Obama administration to hold the rogue government’s “feet to the fire.”

“I would hope that our administration would hold the Iranian government — hold their feet to the fire over the actions that have been alleged in this complaint,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying World Freedom Caucus wants budget reforms attached to debt limit increase Trey Gowdy announces retirement from Congress MORE said.

The Speaker would not specify how the Obama administration should respond.

“I don’t think I need to be specific in terms of what the administration could or should do,” Boehner said. “But I’m hopeful that the administration will hold them accountable for their actions.”

Members of both parties called for tighter sanctions on Iran even as they argued that the plot is evidence that the sanctions now in place are having little effect.

Prosecutors on Tuesday in New York charged a naturalized U.S. citizen, Manssor Arbabsiar, and a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Gholam Shakuri, with conspiring to murder Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir on American soil. Arbabsiar was arrested Sept. 29 in New York, while Shakuri remains at large. The indictment alleges that Arbabsiar agreed to pay members of a Mexican drug cartel $1.5 million to carry out the assassination.

Iranian officials have denounced the charges as a fabrication by the Obama administration aimed at diverting attention from the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests in New York.

As part of its initial response, the Treasury Department banned the Iranian commercial airline Mahan Air from doing business in the United States and froze its assets in the country, declaring that it had provided support to Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, also known as the Quds Force, a designated terrorist sponsor. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney stopped short of calling the plot an act of war.

“It’s a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government’s longstanding use of violence,” Carney said. “And we consider an effort to assassinate a diplomat in the United States to be a flagrant violation of international law. As you know, we are committed to holding the Iranians accountable.”

Carney said the administration “takes no options off the table” but is “clearly focused on working through economic measures, sanctions, as well as diplomatic measures to isolate Iran.”

For the moment, congressional Republicans appeared to give the Obama administration wide latitude to determine its response, and they tiptoed around questions about whether a military response was warranted.

“It puts the world at risk for such provocative behavior, but let’s see where the investigation goes. I don’t know what the appropriate response would be,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Tech: Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up hack | Apple considers battery rebates | Regulators talk bitcoin | SpaceX launches world's most powerful rocket Overnight Cybersecurity: Tillerson proposes new cyber bureau at State | Senate bill would clarify cross-border data rules | Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up breach MORE (R-S.C.), a frequent critic of the administration’s Iran policy.

“We’re running out of time,” he added. “If we can do more sanctions in response to this, fine. But there’ll come a day when we have to make a decision as to whether or not sanctions are working. I hope they do. I’m willing to continue to try, but if they fail, we’ve got two choices: this regime without a nuclear weapon, or this regime with a nuclear weapon.”

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said the plot was another indication that Iran’s leaders are “sworn enemies” of the Untied States.

“Whatever we keep doing to them, to respond to this and their terrorist activities and their weapons — economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure — seems not to affect them,” Lieberman said in an interview. Asked whether he favored a military strike, Lieberman demurred. “I’m not calling for anything — I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Lieberman did say, however, that the news should not come as a surprise given Iran’s pattern of provocations toward the United States.

“I think by one means or another — overt, covert, we have to hold Iran accountable for this outlaw behavior, or else they’ll do it again and again,” he said.

Administration officials scheduled a briefing on the charges for senators Wednesday afternoon. Before the briefing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOvernight Cybersecurity: Tillerson proposes new cyber bureau at State | Senate bill would clarify cross-border data rules | Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up breach GOP probes put new focus on State Will FISA secrecy doom democracy? MORE (D-Mass.), declined to rule out support for military action. 

“I think you see what the level of the facts are, what the layers of knowledge are — you have got to examine it very carefully, but I don’t think anything should be taken off the table at this point in time,” Kerry said.

The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence emerged from the briefing saying there was no indication the administration was considering a military response.

“None was mentioned,” committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCoalition of 44 groups calls for passage of drug pricing bill An open letter to the FBI agent who resigned because of Trump Nunes 'memo' drama proves it: Republicans can't govern, they only campaign MORE (D-Calif.), told reporters.

The ranking Republican, Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE (Ga.), said the fact that the attack was directed at Saudi Arabia weighed against a military response.

“This was not an activity that was directed at the United States. It was directed at the ambassador of Saudi Arabia,” Chambliss said. “That being the case, I don’t think that type of action is warranted, would be warranted, by the United States.”

Ros-Lehtinen said the incident would give new urgency to her push for stronger sanctions against Iran. Legislation she has proposed, which would eliminate waivers and add sanctions to current policies, gained an additional 20 co-sponsors after the plot was uncovered, she told The Hill. The bill now has more than 300 co-sponsors and will be marked up in committee on Oct. 27.

Ros-Lehtinen said the plot was further evidence that the administration’s initial efforts to engage Iran were misguided.

“We should say very clearly that all options are on the table, including military action,” she said.

“It’s as aggressive and in-your-face as you can get,” Ros-Lehtinen said of the assassination scheme. “Diplomacy with Iran does not work. Engagement does not work.”