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(photo credit: AP)
The United States is laying the groundwork for sanctions against Iran after having become increasingly disenchanted with the strategy of engagement, two senior administration officials told Jewish leaders in Washington on Thursday.
William Burns, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said the Obama administration wants to prepare for sanctions now, so that it will be ready to implement them at the end of the year if it comes to that, and not have to start from scratch at that point.
Top White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, appearing beside Burns at the panel discussion with the Jewish leaders, explained that the administration's focus on diplomatic engagement had shifted following the Iranian elections, and indicated that the White House now had a more skeptical view of that approach which could give way to sanctions.
US President Barack Obama has long backed diplomatic outreach, though he has also warned of the possible need for sanctions and referred to keeping "all options on the table."
He has given Teheran a deadline of September 24, when the G-20 nations will next convene, to evaluate Iran's response to his offers of engagement. Top officials have spoken of imposing "crippling sanctions" should diplomacy fail, though that hasn't been fleshed out.
Ross argued on Thursday that having made an effort at engagement, the US was in a better position to work with other members of the international community to enact multilateral sanctions. He also stressed that the door continues to remain open to Iran should it opt for serious negotiations.
The speakers, addressing an off-the-record forum of more than 300 Jewish activists in Washington to press for action on Iran, pointed to a wide menu of sanctions options beyond the narrower targeting of Iran's refined petroleum imports proposed in bills before Congress. The White House and State Department didn't immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the two officials' comments.
Before their appearance at what was billed as the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran, US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman made on-the-record remarks in which he promised action on his sanctions legislation, pending the September 24 deadline. He has not yet moved it forward since introducing it in May, to give diplomacy time to work.
"Thus far Iran has thumbed its nose at President Obama's generous offer to engage," he said. "If Iran does not reverse course, absent some compelling evidence as to why I should do otherwise, I will mark up my bill next month and begin the process of tightening the screws on Iran."
Berman also warned, to applause, that should Iran change course and engagement be pursued further, "We're not going to be conned by an Iranian rope-a-dope, its stalling efforts. We have no intention of spending months analyzing old proposals which are offered merely to delay imposition of sanctions. The clock is ticking and in fact, it has almost run out."
Republican House leaders agreed with Berman that the little time is left, but argued that the Democrat-controlled Congress and Obama administration should be doing more right now.
"I'm concerned that this lack of action will send the wrong message to Iran and the rest of the international community," House Minority Leader John Boehner, who spoke at the event of the need to pass sanctions legislation quickly, told The Jerusalem Post.
He also said more generally that when it comes to the US posture toward Iran, "I'm concerned that the relationship isn't as close as it has been."
Eric Cantor, the House minority whip and another event speaker, agreed that the White House has not being focusing enough on Iran. Referring to the administration's criticism of Israel settlements and eviction of Palestinians from east Jerusalem, he told the Post, "We need to be focused on the greatest threat to Israel, which is Iran."
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer defended the efforts of the administration and Congress. "We never are doing enough until we succeed, and I think the administration is focused on this," he told the Post. "In Congress we certainly feel a great sense of urgency."