By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 26, 2007
In approving far-reaching, new unilateral sanctions against Iran, President Bush signaled yesterday that he intends to pursue a strategy of gradually escalating financial, diplomatic and political pressure on Tehran, aimed not at starting a new war in the Middle East, his advisers said, but at preventing one.
Bush believes Tehran will not seriously discuss limiting its nuclear ambitions or pulling back from its involvement in Iraq unless it experiences significantly more pressure than the United States and the international community have been able to exert so far, according to administration officials and others familiar with the president's thinking.
With yesterday's actions, which included the long-awaited designations of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and of the elite Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism, Bush made clear that he is willing to seek such leverage even without the support of his European allies.
"The president does not want to be stuck -- and doesn't want his successor to be stuck -- between two bad choices: living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or using military force to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons," said Peter D. Feaver, who recently left a staff position on the National Security Council. "He is looking for a viable third way, negotiations backed up by carrots and sticks, that could resolve the Iranian nuclear file on his watch or, failing that, offer a reasonable prospect of doing so on his successor's watch."
Even so, the administration's actions yesterday immediately rekindled fears among Democrats and other countries that the administration is on a path toward war. Bush's charged rhetoric in recent months, including a warning that Iran could trigger a "nuclear holocaust," and his close consultations with hard-liners -- such as former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz -- have led many outside the White House to conclude that the president will order airstrikes to eliminate any Iranian nuclear capability.
"The choice of words has given rise to concerns about just how serious the president is about stopping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold on his watch," said Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said in a statement yesterday that Bush's action "not only echoes the chest-pounding rhetoric which preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2002, but also raises the specter of an intensified effort to make the case for an invasion of Iran."
Iran dismissed the sanctions as meaningless. "The hostile policies of America against the respectful Iranian nation and our legal organizations are against international regulations and have no value," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said yesterday. "Such policies have always failed."
Both publicly and privately, White House and other administration officials have expressed frustration over the talk of war, emphasizing that Bush remains convinced that his strategy of nonmilitary pressure can work. They described yesterday's actions as essential to that approach.
"This decision today supports the diplomacy and in no way, shape or form does it anticipate the use of force," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, a key administration player on Iran. "Now, the president has never taken that option off the table and quite rightly so, but we are clearly on a diplomatic track, and this initiative reinforces that track."
The new sanctions, announced jointly by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., mark the first time that the United States has tried to punish another country's military. It is the broadest set of punitive measures imposed on Tehran since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy there, and includes a call for other countries and companies to stop doing business with three Iranian banks.
The bank measures could emerge as the most significant step taken yesterday because the financial institutions targeted -- Bank Melli, Bank Mellat and Bank Saderat -- are among Iran's largest. The first two have helped finance Iran's proliferation program, and Saderat is being cited for helping finance terrorism, according to U.S. officials.
The United States had originally hoped to get at least some of the measures against Iran's military -- particularly the Quds Force -- and Iran's financial institutions into a tough U.N. resolution to heighten global pressure on Tehran. Two earlier resolutions, passed in December and March, were tepid in sanctioning individuals and a bank linked to the proliferation of nuclear technology.
The administration has become frustrated with European allies and veto-wielding U.N. members. Russia and China have balked at approving a new resolution until two reports, by International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei and the European Union's Javier Solana, are submitted next month. Washington sought a new resolution in June.
The European Union met on Oct. 15 and agreed to impose sanctions outside the U.N. context. But even allies who have led the diplomacy -- Britain, France and Germany -- have been reluctant to join the United States in using broad measures.
While the White House has long been obsessed with Iran's potential to develop nuclear capability, the president has become increasingly angry with Tehran because of the training, rockets and explosives it provides to Shiite extremists who are targeting U.S. troops and facilities in Iraq.
Whether Bush will break from diplomacy and employ force is the great unknown, given his propensity to mix combative rhetoric with assertions that he is looking for a peaceful solution. Many of those who support continued diplomacy take heart from what they believe to be the skepticism of key advisers, including Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, about the usefulness of force.
Some Iran experts voice worry that the president is paying heed to figures such as Podhoretz, who has made little secret of his desire for a military strike. "There's no doubt that the president has very strong views on Iran, that these views are obviously formed by the most hard-line position that sees Iran as an extremely Messianic state that is bent on destruction of the world," said Vali R. Nasr, a professor at Tufts University. "He is eager to deal with that threat to the world before he leaves office, and he sees that as part of his legacy."