Democrats appeared eager Wednesday to poke holes in the seriousness of President Obama’s vow to deter Iran from developing a nuclear warhead, raising tough questions about whether the White House is squeezing hard enough on sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s economy.
“Why haven’t we sanctioned all Iranian banks? You’ve done 23. Why haven’t you done the rest?” Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, demanded from two senior administration officials appearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, responded that 28 Iranian financial institutions have been sanctioned on grounds that there was “evidence that they have either supported Iran’s nuclear program or supported its international terrorist activity.”
Mr. Cohen was about to add to the statement, but Mr. Sherman cut him off sharply, saying, “Excuse me, all these banks are operating under the regulation and control of the Iranian government, which is a terrorist organization. You should sanction all the banks, immediately.”
“If you’re going to have to wait for a smoking gun on every Iranian bank, all they have to do is create three or four more and they can continue to do business,” Mr. Sherman added. “If you’re going to say you’re pedal to the metal, you’ve got to do all Iranian banks.”
His race car metaphor was aimed at a remark made moments earlier by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who had vowed to the committee that the Obama administration is “absolutely pedal to the metal” with regard to sanctions on Iran and preventing Tehran’s pursuit of a warhead.
During Wednesday’s House hearing and a similar hearing earlier in the day before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Republicans and Democrats called on the White House to get tougher on Iran.
During a confrontational line of questioning aimed at Ms. Sherman, Rep. Randy K. Weber Sr., Texas Republican, asked her, “You read a statement from today that said we’d been at the negotiation table for a year and a half. Do you believe we have another year-and-half time frame before they get the nuclear weapon capability?”
Ms. Sherman responded “we don’t know the answer to that” because “there are many factors involved.”
The answer seemed only to inflame Mr. Weber, who shot back: “I think that’s naive. We don’t have a year and a half. We just don’t have a year and a half.”
Rep. Theodore E. Deutch, Florida Democrat, warned that “the ultimate bar for success of sanctions is Iran ending its nuclear program.”
“Thus far, we are no closer to stopping Iran’s brutal human rights abuses, its support for [Syrian President Bashar Assad’s] heinous crimes in Syria, or preventing Iran’s sponsorship of terror around the world,” he said. “This unfortunately leaves many to wonder how our policy of sanctions and diplomacy ultimately can work.”
Such statements overshadowed the claims of success made during the hearing by Ms. Sherman and Mr. Cohen, the latter of whom said current sanctions on Iranian banks, coupled with the administration’s push for a global embargo on Iranian crude oil, have “imposed a very significant strain on the Iranian regime.”
Mr. Cohen walked lawmakers through a host of specific actions already taken — and soon to be taken — by the White House to sharpen the existing sanctions and make them reach deeper into the Iranian economy.
With Iran’s currency already hit hard by European and Asian participation in the U.S.-led embargo of Iranian crude, Mr. Cohen asserted that his staff is broadening its efforts to include blocking the movement of pure gold into the Islamic republic.
“I can assure you that we are looking very, very carefully at any evidence that anyone outside Iran is selling gold to Iran,” he said.
The remark came after Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s chairman, asked whether the administration was aware of recent reports indicating an uptick in the flow of gold into Iran.
“With its currency now in free fall, the Iranians desperately need gold,” said Mr. Royce, who noted that a U.S. law authorizing the Obama administration to sanction anyone selling gold to citizens inside Iran does not take effect until July 1.
With existing U.S. law only allowing sanctions on the sale of gold directly to the Iranian government, Mr. Cohen told lawmakers the administration is keeping a close eye on the situation.
While Mr. Cohen acknowledged that U.S. authorities have “no question that there is gold going from Turkey to Iran,” he said that “in large measure what we’re seeing is private Iranian citizens buying gold as a protection to the falling value” of Iran’s currency, the rial.