The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program is due out on Friday, but the contents are already being discussed in the international press. One source has already told Agence France Presse that it will detail the fact that the installation of 2,700 centrifuges at the mountain bunker facility at Fordow is now complete. The expectation is that enrichment of uranium that can be used to produce a nuclear weapon at this site will increase in the coming months, bringing Tehran much closer to being capable of producing a weapon. That leaves the Obama administration with a dilemma.
Though the economic sanctions that President Obama belatedly embraced last year have inflicted pain on the Iranian economy, as the IAEA report makes clear, they have done nothing to halt their nuclear progress. While the president has reportedly assigned Valerie Jarrett, a close personal confidante, the task of carrying out secret talks with representatives of the ayatollah, there is little reason to believe they are interested in accepting the terms of a possible deal that Obama laid out during the third presidential debate, in which he said they would not be permitted to retain a nuclear program. If that is the president’s goal, he ought to embrace a plan for new and tougher economic sanctions that might actually have a chance to force the Iranians to reconsider their defiance. Yet a report published yesterday in Congressional Quarterly indicates that the administration plans to oppose the scheme.
According to CQ, the same bipartisan Senate team that dragged the administration into the tough sanctions last year is at it again. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez are proposing ratcheting up the economic pressure on Iran. Their goal is to expand the loosely enforced measures now in place into something that would approximate an economic embargo. The new legislation would build on the existing law they helped draft to ban virtually all international trade and transactions with Iran except for food, medicine and humanitarian aid. Though it would not override the waivers given China and other Iranian oil customers allowed by the administration in the last year, the bill has the potential to bring the country to its knees and perhaps force its leaders to abandon their nuclear ambition.
Yet, as was the case with Kirk and Menendez’s previous efforts, the president may adamantly oppose the bill. Last year, the senators watered down their bill in an attempt to address administration concerns, but were disappointed to discover that the White House was still trying to spike it. They prevailed nonetheless and, in a stroke of irony, the president and his surrogates spent the presidential campaign bragging about the same Iran sanctions he had actually opposed before their passage.
If the president tries to stop Kirk and Menendez again this year, it will raise serious questions about his motives. The new sanctions plan provides what may be the only possible path to stopping the Iranians short of the use of force. Opposition to it could mean that the current negotiations being undertaken by Jarrett are aimed at a compromise that will fall far short of the president’s repeated campaign pledges not to allow the Iranians to retain a nuclear program. The president may think such “flexibility” will allow him to avoid a conflict with Tehran, but it will also leave open the very real possibility that the centrifuges in Fordow will not be stopped from producing the weapon that the world fears.
While the White House remains mum about Jarrett’s secret talks, the president’s stance on the Kirk-Menendez sanctions will give us a clue as to whether he will make good on his pledges to stop Iran during a second term.