By John T. Bennett - 12/07/11 01:35 AM EST
The Obama administration’s strategy for securing congressional support for its Iran policy “has collapsed,” a GOP senator charged Tuesday.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) offered harsh words for the White House, which he said should support tougher Senate sanctions meant to curtail Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.
He said the 100-0 vote “sent a message” that senators feel the administration is not moving aggressively enough to thwart the country’s nuclear ambitions.
“You don’t get any better than 100-to-zero,” Kirk said.
The weakening of support on Capitol Hill comes as President Obama enters an election year that will bring a litany of attacks on his foreign policy from his Republican rival for the White House.
Mitt Romney, one of the front-runners for the GOP nomination, says Iran is “Obama’s greatest failure” as commander in chief, and has vowed to stop Tehran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal if he wins the presidency.
Newt 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.”
Pressure on the administration has been building from all sides since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed Iran is closer than ever to fielding a nuclear weapon.
Democrats and Republicans at a Senate hearing last week hammered Obama administration witnesses for what the lawmakers called a go-slow approach.
Congress can no longer afford to “listen and nod while the administration talks of incrementalism … and engagement,” Kirk said. “Time is running out.”
Lawmakers in both chambers are concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran — and what that could mean for an already volatile Middle East. Some are suggesting it’s time for the U.S. to consider military force.
“Should Iran develop a nuclear weapon, it could spark a new arms race in the Middle East and grant the world’s worst state sponsor of terror the protective cover of a nuclear umbrella,” John Noonan, a spokesman for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Tuesday. “With thousands of U.S. troops in the region, [McKeon is] open to any and all solutions that could arrest Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”
Obama is sticking with the message he brought with him to the Oval Office: that the United States is willing to engage Iran in negotiations, but Washington will, in the meantime, continue tightening the noose with tougher sanctions.
That strategy isn’t resonating with members of Congress, who want the U.S. to take a more forceful stand against the Iranian regime.
Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) pushed an amendment that would 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 the sanctions package, saying it could drive up global oil prices and dissuade allies from joining efforts to further isolate Tehran. The amendment was added to a defense authorization bill that must still be approved after a conference between House and Senate lawmakers.
Menendez and Kirk say the White House negotiated with them on the final language of their amendment and signaled its approval, only to slam it last week in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez rebuked administration officials in a heated statement.
“You have rebuffed us every step of the way,” Menendez said.
The senators had provided an escape hatch for the White House that would let the administration waive the terms of the sanctions should oil market conditions or a national security crisis warrant it.
They thought the waiver provision had been enough to win tacit support from the White House and were taken aback when the administration started laying out its opposition.
Adding to the pressure on the White House, the American Enterprise Institute rolled out a new report Tuesday mapping out how a nuclear-armed Iran might be contained.
There is a growing consensus in Washington and other Western nations “that pre-emptive military action is unappealing, leading many to suggest that containing a nuclear Iran is a reasonable option,” states the AEI report.
But, the conservative think tank warned, “containment is hardly a cost-free policy.”
Such a policy would require enhanced diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions, but it also would require “increased efforts on other fronts,” including diminishing Iran’s economic efforts and its influence in energy markets, the think tank said.
“The keystone of any containment policy is a military strategy of deterrence,” AEI said.
The U.S. would have to beef up its own nuclear arsenal and commit to “prolonged” counterintelligence, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency presence “around Iran’s perimeter,” according to the report.
AEI said a containment strategy also would require “a large and persistent conventional covering force operating throughout the region and a reinforcing force capable of assured regime change.” But the Obama administration is shifting its foreign-policy focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, which will include moving some military forces and platforms out of the Middle East.
— Posted at 1:27 p.m. and updated at 8:35 p.m.