The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran policy reaches day of reckoning

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Events are proceeding on several tracks with regard to Iran. What is happening is as significant as what is not happening.

In the “not happening” department, even the administration no longer insists diplomatic progress is being made to end the Iranian weapons program. Nor do informed observers think the Iranian presidential elections in June are meaningful. Not only are the latter irrelevant since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei runs the nuclear show, but also the faux “moderate” in the race, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani “presided over some of the worst acts of terror ever committed by the Islamic Republic,” as former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams puts it. The Iranians will use both diplomacy and the upcoming elections to buy time, all the while racing forward with their nuclear weapons program.

And that comes to the next big event in the region, the expected report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the current state of Iran’s nuclear program. While the West doesn’t know what is happening at whatever secret sites Iran has set up, evidence of installation of more of the advanced centrifuges will be cause for alarm. Such a finding will signal that the period to nuclear breakout capability has shortened considerably.

Then there is the congressional piece of the puzzle. This week the House will take up legislation by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engels (D-N.Y.) to strengthen sanctions against Iran. The Times of Israel reports:

The bill will be discussed in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, while a similar bill is being advanced in the Senate by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL). The bills are expected to reach their final form and be brought to a vote in both chambers in the coming months.
In addition to expanding economic restrictions, the House version of the bill would sanction “human rights violators” in Iran, including “corrupt officials that (sic) confiscate humanitarian and other goods for their own benefit” and “persons exporting sensitive technology to Iran,” according to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s summary of the bill. . . .
The bill also instructs the Obama administration to consider designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a foreign terrorist organization for its involvement in the country’s nuclear program, its involvement in suppressing the country’s pro-democracy movement, and its alleged role in recent attempted and successful terror attacks around the world.
Finally, the bill requires the Obama administration to produce a “national strategy on Iran” each year “highlighting Iranian capabilities and key vulnerabilities that the United States may exploit, providing the United States Government a roadmap as to how to effectively address the Iranian threat.”

You would think the administration already had such a national strategy, but you’d be wrong. Moreover, you’d think the administration would welcome more sanctions authorization. But again, you’d be wrong. Just last month Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to dissuade Congress from acting. At this point, however, there is bipartisan consensus in Congress to ignore Kerry’s pleas and move ahead with sanctions authorization. (The Menendez/Kirk/Manchin legislation also will seek to close loopholes in existing legislation in the area of currency exchanges.)

And then to top it off Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will be moving ahead with legislation that passed the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously declaring that in the event Israel deems it necessary to act against Iran the United States will be supportive.

If you’ve spotted the problem, then you have figured out Israel’s dilemma. Congress is supportive, tightening sanctions and willing to stand behind the Jewish state, but the timeline for legislation to pass, be implemented and take effect is outpaced by Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. Even if Congress acts, it is hard to see what difference it would make. Couple that with the widespread suspicion that given the president’s spinelessness on Syria, he’ll not act military. You therefore can see why Israel is fast approaching a decision point. In determining when that is precisely, the IAEA report will be key.

Israel’s government, now a broad-based coalition, and its citizens are united on this issue: Iran can’t get the bomb, and Israel will act if need be. Congress plainly recognizes the moment of truth is upon us. The seriousness of this can’t be overstated. Considering the turmoil in the region, the greater involvement of Hezbollah in Syria’s violent civil war and the instability of multiple regimes, one can only imagine how volatile the situation would be if Iran had a nuclear umbrella. Congress and Israel are determined to make certain that doesn’t happen, regardless of a hapless administration that lacks any respected national security official in whom the U.S. and Israel can have confidence.