The Jerusalem Post reports: “Iran is less than a year away from being unstoppable in its goal of producing a nuclear weapon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview with CNN released on Saturday.” Barak thinks this has created new urgency. “Barak said a report earlier this month by the U.N. nuclear watchdog that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing an atomic bomb and may still be conducting secret research had had a sobering effect on world leaders and was driving urgent, intensive diplomacy.” But is he right?
In the United States there is general agreement that sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran is among the few remaining steps that might influence the mullahs’ decision to press ahead with their nuclear problem. But, as Josh Rogin explains, Democrats are resisting the call to make those sanctions as tough a possible:
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is leading the charge for collapsing the CBI and trying to bring down the whole Iranian economy. In August, more than 90 senators signed a letter to President Barack Obama, written by Kirk and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), which stated, “The time has come to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s financial system by cutting off the Central Bank of Iran.”
Earlier this week, Kirk introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which is on the floor now, that would force the administration to cut off from the U.S. financial system any bank that does business with the CBI. The administration, led by Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen, has been lobbying against the Kirk amendment because they believe it could risk harm to the U.S. economy. . . .
There are two risks to the Kirk strategy: One is that other countries’ central banks might decide to react negatively and stop doing business with the United States, another is that bringing down Iran’s economy would disrupt world oil markets, raising the price of energy.
“We are eager to work with Congress to develop new authorities to amplify our pressure on Iran, but it is critically important that the steps we take do not destabilize the U.S. and global economy while potentially benefiting Iran,” a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable.
A senior GOP Senate aide responded to that argument today, telling The Cable, “Treasury should go back and model the cost to the U.S. economy and the world economy of an Israeli strike on Iran.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is taking the lead for the Democrats, trying to include a provision that “will require the president to make a determination about whether the Central Bank of Iran’s conduct threatens the national security of the United States or its allies based on its facilitation of the activities of the Government of Iran that threaten global or regional peace and security.” Democrats fret about a rise in oil prices, but how high will oil prices go if Israel or the United States is compelled to take military action? Republicans see a giant loophole since the Menendez language “would give the president broad waiver authority to exempt central banks from other countries from the penalties of doing business with the CBI .” However, Kirk remains optimistic that the differences between the two sides can be resolved. The bigger question is the White House.
If the administration truly wants to avoid military action and finds it “unacceptable” for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, it should be the one pressing for the toughest sanctions possible. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies thinks the pressure point is oil. He tells me that the immediate step should be to target oil sales involving the Central Bank of Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. “So the administration today should enforce existing laws against doing business with the IRGC against select oil transactions by threatening sanctions against certain energy buyers, central banks and other market players, “ he says. The sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, he contends, are another mechanism for pinching those oil sales. He says, “The real reason to target the CBI is to impact Iran’s ability to sell its oil. Oil sales represent 50 to 75 percent of the government budget and 80 percent of export earnings. This is the only real short-term sanction that matters. Sanctioning the CBI makes it difficult for companies to settle an oil purchase, given the effective job Treasury has done severely curtailing the use of other Iranian banks by these oil buyers.” And yet the administration hasn’t taken this step.
Even after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report, some in the United States, and certainly in Europe, lack a sense of urgency. The administration has slow-walked sanctions from the get-go. And now time is scarce. The White House should get on the right side of the issue and join Republicans in pressing for the maximum possible sanctions in the shortest possible time. Otherwise, President Obama will reap the blame should Iran join the nuclear weapons club.