- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Facing growing congressional angst over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, the Obama administration said Tuesday it is trying to gauge whether Tehran is able to act with rational self-interest or whether it is on a trajectory to become a nuclear wild card.

“While we don’t know for sure, what we’re trying to do now is probe that,” said Stuart Levey, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, who is in charge of designing and enforcing financial sanctions against Tehran and other rogue governments.

Mr. Levey and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg told the Senate Banking Committee that while the West is engaged in talks this month with Iran over its nuclear program, the Obama administration is still working on a sanctions package that would, if needed, hopefully have support from foreign governments and a wide range of international businesses.

Senators on the panel, while polite toward the administration officials, showed growing frustration with Iran, following historic talks with Tehran in Geneva last week in which Iran made key concessions. The senators clearly viewed the Iranian gestures as stalling tactics to buy time while Tehran works on obtaining nuclear weapons.

“There is the fear here, collectively, that … the Iranian government is taking us to the cleaners on this issue and the end result would put us at great risk,” said Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat.

“Our patience has run out,” Mr. Dodd said. “This has gone on too long.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, questioned whether Iran would respond to sanctions or be so intent on obtaining nuclear weapons that it would continue at all costs. He noted that the nature of the regime is “opaque” and “internally divided” following national elections in June that were met with widespread protests and continue to be contested despite a violent crackdown by the government.

Mr. Levey said that the current strategy to offer Iran full engagement - a change from the Bush administration’s quest to isolate Tehran - while threatening sanctions if Iran does not respond appropriately, is an attempt by the White House to “put before the leadership in Iran a rational choice.”

Mr. Bayh, however, said that even assuming the Iranian leaders were “rational decision makers at the end of the day,” and not driven by ideology, “we may not be able to raise the cost so high as to ultimately affect their decision about this.”

Mr. Levey, whose office was created in 2004 and has spearheaded what are thought to be by many the most effective points of pressure on Iran, acknowledged the limitations of sanctions.

“We should be realistic about the ability of sanctions to achieve our political and security objectives with Iran,” he said, though he added that well-designed punitive measures “can at the very least demonstrate to the Iranian government that there are serious costs to any continued refusal to cooperate with the international community.”

The administration rejected the concern from lawmakers that Iran’s agreement last week to allow inspectors into the recently disclosed nuclear site at Qom and to ship most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France had undone White House efforts to gain support for sanctions from Russia and China.

“On the contrary, I think the Iranians made some commitments … that everybody’s going to expect them to live up to,” Mr. Steinberg said to reporters after the hearing.

A senior White House official argued that while China remains a more difficult sell, the Russians are “heavily invested” in the strategy to have Iran ship its LEU out of the country, because the Kremlin proposed and supported the idea.

“If the Iranians walk away it will be embarrassing for the Russians,” said the official, who asked to not be identified in order to speak freely. He did acknowledge that if Iran is “able to string this along and do half measures and not deliver, there is concern that the unity [on sanctions] might be frayed somewhat.”

Government representatives and technical experts from Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - along with Germany, will meet in Vienna Oct. 19 to discuss the removal of LEU from Iran.

A meeting of higher-level officials from those countries is slated for later in the month, to determine Iran’s seriousness in following through on the commitments made in Geneva.

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