WASHINGTON — A senior US State Department official on Wednesday sent mixed messages to Iran, striking hawkish and dovish tones about its nuclear weapons program.
At times, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was the ultimate diplomat. “Meet your international responsibilities on your nuclear program and reap the benefits of being a full member of the international community,” she said of the Iranian regime.
Yet at other times, Sherman’s message turned muscular.
“There is still time for it to change course, but that time is not indefinite,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and there should be no doubt that the United States will use all elements of American power to achieve that objective.”
Sherman told the panel US officials have concluded Iran’s nuclear ambitions are less about giving the state a nuclear deterrent and mostly about establishing a “regional hegemony.”
Tehran’s atomic ambitions, along with its efforts to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and its support of terrorism, show Iranian leaders want to establish “a foothold from Asia to the Arabian Peninsula.”
Democratic and Republican senators said they support the stiff economic sanctions the Obama administration has imposed on Iran in recent years. But they agreed those measures might not be forceful enough to convince Tehran to give up its atomic arms ambitions.
Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he is “impressed by the effects of the sanctions. Experts say the sanctions have had a crippling effect on Iran’s economy.”
But Corker immediately added he is not impressed by the inability of the sanctions to alter Tehran’s behavior.
Sherman and a senior Treasury Department official said the administration also is frustrated, with Sherman repeating her threat that diplomacy is not “indefinite.”
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, warned the US “can turn the screws all we want,” but the Iranian regime will only give up its nuclear program if it calculates its grip on power is slipping.
Risch, apparently alluding to Iran’s top enemy, Israel, warned that another nation that is also greatly concerned about Tehran going nuclear soon will “pull the trigger on them.”
“I don’t believe the regime in Iran believes anyone is going to pull the trigger on them. I think someone will,” Risch said. “It’s going to end. And it isn’t going to end happy.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., sounded a more hawkish tone. He laid out a four-point plan, three of which called for things such as increased economic pressure and international isolation against Iran.
But Menendez also called for Washington to seriously step up its planning for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
“The time may have also come to look more seriously at all options, and that would include increasing military pressure against Iran,” Menendez said. “I believe there is still time for diplomacy to work but increased military pressure could signal to the supreme leader that a nuclear program will undermine the security of his regime, not improve it.”
Some Democratic committee members, however, urged less-hawkish ways to defuse tensions over the issue.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., joined Risch and others by stating sanctions alone likely will fail to force Iran “to back away from a nuclear program.”
What’s needed is a clever diplomatic way to give the regime “a reason” to do it, Kaine said.
And that reason must be rooted in the adage that all politics are local.
“If it’s just a game of arm-wrestling, they’re not going to admit they lost,” Kaine said. US officials and their allies must help Iranian leaders “maintain legitimacy” at home by building into possible options ways to allow them to successfully conduct domestic “face saving.”
But the State Department official came to Capitol Hill Wednesday clearly with an intention to sound muscular.
“We consult regularly on security matters with our partners in the Persian Gulf and maintain a substantial presence in the region, to keep a watchful eye on Iran, counter potential Iranian aggression, reassure our allies, and protect the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz,” she said.
Sherman made sure to let Tehran know Washington will continue sending military aid to Israel.
“We are also in close and constant contact with Israel to coordinate our policies and have taken unprecedented steps to protect Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge — including support for the Iron Dome defense system to stop Iranian-supported militant groups from firing Iranian-supplied rockets into Israeli communities.”