Inter Press Service
A significant gap between the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and staunchly pro-Israel majorities in both houses of Congress appears to have emerged over what to do in reaction to Tuesday's report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on possible military applications of Iran's nuclear programme.
Staunchly pro-Israel lawmakers on Capitol Hill are demanding the imposition, unilaterally if necessary, of "crippling sanctions" against Tehran – targeted initially against Iran's central bank and the foreign banks that do business with it. If those fail to bring Iran to heel, some are calling on the administration to prepare for air strikes against Tehran's nuclear facilities and other targets.
If a ramped-up sanctions regime doesn't "doesn't work, the other option is military force", Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told the widely read Cable blog on foreignpolicy.com Tuesday after the report was released.
The administration's reaction has been more cautious. Speaking mainly on background, senior officials have told reporters that neither option is being seriously considered at the moment. Instead, the administration hopes to work with its allies in imposing some new "targeted" sanctions and closing loopholes in existing ones.
It also hopes to persuade China and Russia to go along with a new round of sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Security Council, to which it hopes the IAEA's governing board will formally refer the report when it meets in Vienna late next week. Since 2006, the Council has approved four rounds of sanctions against Tehran.
"(W)hat we've been working towards is reinforcing (existing sanctions), working with countries around the world to make sure that those sanctions are upheld and implemented to the fullest extent possible," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner, who stressed that was "incumbent on Iran to at last engage with the IAEA in a credible and transparent manner to address" the concerns raised in the report.
"I think that as we move forward, we're going to consult and certainly look at ways to impose additional pressure on Iran," he said.
Early indications, however, suggested that the administration will find it hard to get both China and Russia on board. In a rare joint action, the two permanent Security Council members lobbied against the publication of the full report that included detailed evidence that Iran has conducted research and tests "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device" before its release.
While Beijing, a major importer of oil from Iran, called Wednesday for Tehran to "engage in serious co-operation" with the IAEA to clear up questions raised by the report, Moscow took a harder line.
Additional U.N. sanctions "will be seen in the international community as an instrument for regime change in Iran", Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadi Gatilov said Wednesday. "That approach is unacceptable to us, and the Russian side does not intend to consider such proposals."
Washington's major European allies, on the other hand, were more enthusiastic, with France leading the charge.
"If Iran refuses to conform to the demands of the international community and refuses any serious cooperation, we stand ready to adopt, with other willing countries, sanctions on an unprecedented scale," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
The report, the most sensational parts of which were leaked to various Western media over several days before its actual release, was based on evidence accumulated from 10 member states and a foreign scientist who allegedly worked on the programme, as well as the agency's own work.
The report found that most of the nuclear-related activities that caused it the greatest concern were carried out between the late 1990s and 2003, but that "some activities may still be ongoing".
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2007 that key facets of a weaponisation programme ceased in 2003 and had not yet resumed – a position it has taken as recently as last March – and that does not appear to be inconsistent with the IAEA report's main findings.
"The Agency's ability to construct an equally good understanding of activities in Iran after the end of 2003 is reduced due to the more limited information available to the Agency," the report stated.
For its part, Iran, which has long denied any intent to build nuclear weapons, has charged that much of the evidence compiled by the IAEA was fabricated.
"This nation won't retreat one iota from the path it is going," declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a speech to a crowd in Shahr-e-Kord, a city in central Iran. "Why are you ruining the prestige of the (IAEA) for absurd U.S. claims?"
In addition to the leaks of the last few days, the run-up to the report's release was dominated by a flurry of reports from Israel that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, were trying to persuade their cabinet to approve a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
But Yossi Alpher, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer who publishes the widely read bitterlemons-international.org blog, wrote Wednesday that those reports were apparently designed to take advantage of the forthcoming IAEA report to "generate stronger international sanctions".
"Right now …hype, pressure and deterrence appear to be the name of the game," he wrote in an article published Wednesday by the Forward, a major U.S. Jewish newspaper, although he did not exclude the possibility of an eventual Israeli attack.
For his part, Netanyahu declared Wednesday that the IAEA report "corroborates the position of the international community, and of Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons", a conclusion that went significantly beyond the report's actual findings.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu's position was echoed here by lawmakers who particularly close to the Israel lobby, whose leading organisation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has long sought more confrontational stance toward Tehran.
"If this is not a smoking gun, I don't know what is," said Republican Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, among the biggest recipients of campaign dollars from AIPAC-linked political action committees over the past decade.
Kirk is co-sponsoring legislation with Democratic New York Sen. Charles Schumer that would require Obama to determine within 30 days whether Iran's central bank is providing support for the country's nuclear programme, major conventional weapons systems, or terrorism. If so, the president would have to sanction any international financial companies that do business with the central bank, effectively banning their access to the U.S. financial system.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar measure introduced last week by the Committee's senior Democrat, California Rep. Howard Berman. The report "makes crystal clear to any remaining doubters that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability", Berman said in a statement Tuesday.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.