Prominent lawmakers and Middle East experts on Thursday urged Washington to enact stricter sanctions on Iran, with one former senior diplomat urging "the most robust sanctions in history."
The Obama administration—despite Republican and Israeli calls for a military strike—are pressing forward with a policy of tough sanctions and diplomatic talks aimed at compelling Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers acknowledge the U.S. and European Union sanctions have had an economic impact on the Iranian regime. Obama administration officials and regional experts have said the sanctions played a role in convincing Iranian officials to enter into a new round of talks with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany that will reconvene next week in Baghdad.
But those lawmakers and experts say time is running out to force Iran to abandon its atomic arms program.
One House Republican source says "we expect a weaponization program by the end of this year." White House officials contend the Iranian program is not that far along.
But Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree Iran is moving closer to possessing a nuclear weapon. Lawmakers from both parties along with regional experts say the Obama administration and Congress should act swiftly to impose even stricter—perhaps crippling—sanctions aimed directly at Iran's leaders.
"The consequences to Iran have been significant," former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Mark Wallace told a House panel Thursday. "Iran's [currency] has been in free-fall, a reliable indicator of the economic impact of sanctions."
Still, Wallace called for bolder steps.
"With bold action, we still have an opportunity to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions," Wallace said. "We must seek the most robust sanctions in history, and we must consider much more than tweaks to current sanctions."
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said economic sanctions "are inflicting damage on Iran's long term oil production potential." What's more, she said "sanctions on Iran's oil industry and banking system are curtailing the foreign partnerships that the Iranian oil industry has relied on.
But Ros-Lehtinen echoed Wallace, saying "more remains to be done."
She slammed what she dubbed the Obama administration's "foolish embrace" of the ongoing talks with Iran.
"The Administration has made concession after concession in its negotiations with Iran only to come empty handed," she said. "The Iranian approach seems to be: 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable.'"
Instead of talking to the Iranians, Ros-Lehtinen said, the administration should "accelerate and expand our sanctions to compel the Iranians to verifiably and permanently abandon their dangerous polices."
California Rep. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the panel and usually a White House ally on foreign affairs matters, also endorsed stiffer sanctions.
It would fall under the purview of the committee to craft the House's version of any legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran.
As the diplomatic talks continue, senior Obama administration officials have dangled a carrot in front of Tehran.
"I believe in action for action, but I think in this case, the burden of action falls on the Iranians to demonstrate their seriousness," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in April. "We are going to keep the sanctions in place and the pressure on Iran as they consider...what they'll bring to the table in Baghdad, and we'll respond accordingly."
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the panel Obama must avoid removing the sanctions before their full collective impact takes effect.
"As eager, however, as President Obama is for a deal that will get Iran off the front pages—and all but eliminate the possibility of an Israeli strike ahead of the November election—he cannot take the political risk of offering too much relief for too few concessions," Dubowitz said.
Removing some of the sanctions too quickly, he warned, could cause Israel to take matters into its own hands.
"Once sanctions start to unravel, the fear of U.S. penalties that held them together will become difficult to reestablish, and the multilateral sanctions regime—the centerpiece of the president's Iran strategy—will be gone," Dubowitz said. "This may also persuade the Israelis that the time for diplomacy has passed, and only military action can stop Iran's development of nuclear weapons."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.