Sanctions having effect, but Tehran policy unchanged

Strike or no strike: Debate rages on Iran’s nuclear sites

International sanctions are squeezing Iran’s economy but are doing little to dissuade the regime’s nuclear ambitions, the top U.S. intelligence officer told Congress on Thursday.

“It’s having a tremendous impact on their economy, by any measure,” National Director of Intelligence James R. Clapper said of the sanctions in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That said, it has not yet induced a change in their policy.”

However, U.S. intelligence continues to hold that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei has not decided to build a nuclear weapon, Mr. Clapper said.

Against the backdrop of nuclear threats from North Korea, some foreign policy mavens say the U.S. can’t afford to wait until Iran has the capability and are urging a pre-emptive, limited military strike.

“It’s going to be a dangerous operation for whoever undertakes it, and it’s not going to be an end to the Iranian nuclear program [but] a delay might be better than what comes next, which is an Iranian nuclear capability, intimidation of the region, possible use of the weapon, possible proliferation,” Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Wednesday at a debate hosted by the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington.

Arguing alongside Ms. Pletka, Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, said the current U.S. policy of negotiations and sanctions are not working, and predicted that President Obama’s legacy will be defined by the question: “On his watch, did Iran become a nuclear weapon-holder or not?”

The United States’ credibility would be destroyed if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon because of Mr. Obama’s repeated public pledges not to let that happen, Mr. Wexler said.

Opponents of a pre-emptive strike argued that the president’s dual track of negotiations and sanctions are working, albeit slowly.

“Of course they’re going for a bomb,” said James Dobbins, a retired diplomat who heads international and security policy for the defense firm Rand Corp. “[But] they’ve been careful not to cross that threshold although they’re inching up to it.”

“Time is not working on our side, but I think we have time now,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a retired diplomat who argued alongside Mr. Dobbins at Wednesday’s debate. “Are we ready yet for a third ground war in the Middle East?”

“We are not good at changing regimes. [Iraq] went to hell in a handbasket,” Mr. Pickering said. “Regime change in Iran will require occupation. It’s not a kind of slot-machine issue, in which we put the quarter in, and pull the lever and out comes our preferred alternative.”

The West and Israel have long suspected that Iran’s nuclear program is geared toward creating an atomic weapon, but Iranian leaders have insisted their program is peaceful, designed for energy production and medical research.

Meanwhile, Iran has enriched its uranium to approach weapons-grade quality and has refused to allow international inspectors to examine its nuclear facilities.

Mr. Wexler said he believes the American public would support a limited strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, given the Obama administration’s effort to persuade the regime to abandon its program.

“I would hope and suspect that this time we would be more accurate,” he said, referring to the U.S.-led war in Iraq that did not uncover any weapons of mass destruction.

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