Lawmakers during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday said harsh, swift action was needed against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, but the Obama administration seemed to be dragging its feet.
"The United States should be exploring every option to accelerate and intensify the economic pressure on the Iranian government,while working with allies to construct a more comprehensive approach to sanctions than has been achieved thus far," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the committee's top Republican. "This should be a top priority of the administration and of the Congress."
The Senate is expected to take up by the end of the week an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would impose further sanctions on Iran beyond what the administration announced last month and would include a ban on U.S. companies from doing business with any foreign financial institution that has ties to Iran's Central Bank.
The amendment to the defense authorization bill also would seek to impose sanctions against entities, including other central banks, that trade with the Central Bank of Iran.
David Cohen, a Treasury Department undersecretary, said the administration also is examining ways to pump up pressure on Iran's banking sector, but said the amendment risked harming U.S. allies financially and dinging a coalition cautiously built over many months.
Menendez said the "clock was ticking," based on an International Atomic Energy Agency report that Iran was moving toward nuclear weapon development, perhaps in about a year.
"Now when are we going to start our sanctions regime robustly? Six months before a clock has been achieved, before they get a nuclear weapon?" he asked.
He also expressed disappointment that efforts between him and the White House to address concerns with the original amendment still fell short of what the administration wants.
"At the request of the administration, we engaged in a good faith effort to try to create an amendment that would have the maximum effect on Iran's -- certainly on its economy, and the minimum effort on any disruption in the oil market of the United States," Menendez said. "And now you come here and vitiate that very agreement."
"Even though we've given you the tools, you haven't shown us the robust effort," Menendez said. "So that's why 80 members of the Senate in a time in which it is very difficult to find bipartisan agreement ... have joined in our Iran, North Korea, Syria sanctions act because they understand that just as the Iranian's move to circumvent the sanctions regime that we have already imposed and to find ways to achieve loopholes, we understand that we must be a step ahead of them."
Cohen also warned that the wrong types of sanctions could raise global oil prices, benefiting Iran at the expense of Western economies.
"We are more likely to achieve cooperation ... if we approach this issue through an effort to coordinate action voluntarily rather than with the threat of coercion," he said.