Memo|National Security   5 Minute Read

All the Options: What President Obama is Doing to Confront Iran

Published December 8, 2011

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In an attempt to leverage against the president that found Osama bin Laden and ended the war in Iraq (among other issues), the Republican presidential hopefuls have roundly criticized President Obama for his handling of Iran. Mitt Romney declared that Iran is the President’s “greatest failing from a foreign policy standpoint.” Newt Gingrich said the Administration had “skipped all the ways to be smart” in its response on Iran. And Rick Perry urged the American people to “force the Administration to take a stand” on confronting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. These critiques, largely empty of detail, are equally empty of validity. Indeed, the Obama Administration has done everything the 2012 Republican candidates have asked for—and more—to combat Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons.

America is already unilaterally sanctioning Iran. The White House is pursuing a host of tough unilateral sanctions (over EU opposition) under the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act, which sanctioned investment in Iran’s energy sector. ISA specifically targeted foreign firms doing business with Iran, as most American firms were already prohibited from doing business with Tehran.1

  • In June 2010, Obama signed into law the tough Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which further sanctioned refined petroleum imports to Iran, since Iran depends on gasoline imports for 40% of its overall needs.2 CISADA also excluded foreign banks from doing business in the U.S. if they worked with Iranian entities, thereby cutting off Iran from the international financial system.3
  • In May 2011, Obama signed Executive Order 13574, which implemented several provisions in CISADA.4

Reportedly, covert operations have been occurring against the nuclear program: Covert operations are classified, but numerous recent efforts to thwart Tehran’s effort to build nuclear weapons have come to light in the media.

  • The U.S. introduced faulty devices into Iran’s nuclear black market pipeline throughout the last decade,5 and is probably continuing these secret efforts out of sight from the public. As recently as October, international observers noted the Iranian program continued to suffer technical setbacks.6
  • In June 2010, researchers noted that the sophisticated Stuxnet computer virus (which infected Iran’s nuclear facilities’ control systems last year) could only have been programmed by a nation-state.7 Subsequent media reports indicated Stuxnet was a joint U.S.-Israel effort.8
  • Over the past few years, several Iranian nuclear researchers have been killed on their way to work, and no one knows by whom.9 Additionally, Iran’s Ballistic Missile Command chief died in November 2011 in a massive explosion that also killed 17 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members and completely leveled an IRGC long-range missile facility. It is not clear who or what was responsible for the blast.10

Obama is publicly confronting Iran. The President continues to reiterate that he is “not taking any options off the table.”11

  • The U.S. has authorized sales of 5,000-lb bunker-busting bombs—designed to obliterate underground facilities like the ones underneath Qom and Natanz—to both the United Arab Emirates and Israel.12
  • American pressure last year helped convince the Russians to scrap its sale of sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles systems to Iran, despite loud howls of protest from Tehran.13

Obama is spearheading international diplomatic efforts against Iran. The White House is continuing Bush-era policy by pushing—with Russian and Chinese support—a UN resolution restricting Iranian military, shipping, financial capabilities, as well as banning nuclear-capable ballistic missiles technology.14

  • The U.S. in early December petitioned South Korea to slash imports of Iranian petrochemicals and curtail oil imports.15
  • In late November, the U.S., along with Great Britain and Canada, announced new harsh measures targeting Iran’s financial sector, designating it as a "primary money laundering concern."16

Obama publicly supports Iranian dissidents in their efforts against the theocrats. The Administration already made the effort to support the brave protestors during the abortive 2009 Green Revolution.

  • “I strongly condemn these unjust actions,” Obama said at the time.
  • Secretary of State Clinton said in early 2011: “Let me, clearly and directly, support the aspirations of the people who are in the streets in Iran today."17
  • Officials at the State Department in 2009 requested that Twitter delay an upgrade that would have prevented Iranian protestors from spreading the word about the violent government crackdown.18

What is Congress currently doing?

Governor Perry suggested that the U.S. levy sanctions on Iran’s central bank.19 Well, Senators have been working on this since August, and in late November, the Senate unanimously passed a Menendez-Kirk amendment to the defense bill that would sanction the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and foreign institutions doing business with the CBI.20 Sanctions against Iran’s central bank would send a strong message about the consequences of their behavior.

While there’s broad support for sanctions, they should be carefully crafted to avoid unintended consequences. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently noted, sanctioning CBI might cause oil prices to spike, imperiling the recovery of the fragile global economy.21

What else can America do?

Although the Republican candidate critiques on Iran have been largely devoid of suggestions for action, there are some steps the U.S. can take to further isolate Iran and its clandestine nuclear program, including:

Keep the Focus on Syria. The Assad regime is the lynchpin to Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East and Tehran’s primary conduit to its terrorist proxy, Hizbollah.

  • By continuing to focus political and economic pressure on Syria, American efforts complement recent sanctions put in place by the European Union,22 the Arab League,23 and neighboring Turkey.24
  • Pressuring Syria further isolates Tehran from one of its few remaining allies.

Further undermine the IRGC by pressuring the EU to step up sanctions. The IRGC controls the nuclear and missile program, but it also maintains a vast network of economically profitable companies.

  • The U.S. already has the IRGC under its Specially Designated Nationals List, but American policymakers can go further by pressuring the EU to shut down IRGC companies in Europe.
  • As Claudia Rosett and Emanuele Ottolenghi argued in The Wall Street Journal on December 1, “If the EU is serious about sanctions, it must stop pinpoint measures and target the IRGC's entire commercial empire.”25

Use Iran’s disregard for global diplomatic norms to further isolate the regime. Iran’s brazen plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.,26 as well as the recent attack on the British Embassy by a state-supported mob,27 indicate Iran’s willingness to sweep aside long-standing diplomatic standards for short-term gain. Even countries willing to turn a blind eye to Iran’s nuclear activities could be motivated to act against Tehran because they know Iran might attack and assassinate their diplomatic corps in order to send a political message.

Presidential Candidates Should be Honest About These Efforts

No one believes the current stand-off with Iran has gone perfectly. Our relations with that volatile country have been sour and/or dangerous for more than 30 years. But if Republicans are going to make Iran the central pillar in their critique of Obama’s foreign policy, they should understand the record and offer ideas for further action. So far, the candidates have attacked with a series of broad, vague, and unsubstantiated claims that the U.S. under President Obama is not doing enough. If they have a real critique, they have a responsibility to say what they would do differently.

  1. United States, Congressional Research Service, Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” CRS Report RS20871, October 13, 2011, p. 2, Print.

  2. United States, Congressional Research Service, Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” CRS Report RS20871, October 13, 2011, p. 3, Print.

  3. United States, Congressional Research Service, Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” CRS Report RS20871, October 13, 2011, p. 29, Print.

  4. United States, The White House, “Executive Order 13574 of May 23, 2011- Authorizing the Implementation of Certain Sanctions Set Forth in the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, as Amended,” Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 101, May 25, 2011, p. 1. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  5. “Israel assassinating Iranian officials,” The Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2011. Availabe at:

  6. Joby Warrick, “Iran’s nuclear program suffering new setbacks, diplomats and experts say,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  7. Kim Zetter, “How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History,” Wired, July 11, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  8. William J. Broad, John Markoff, and David E. Sanger, “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay,” The New York Times, January 15, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  9. Hossein Jaseb, “Iranian nuclear scientist killed in Tehran: report,” Reuters, July 23, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  10. Yaakov Katz, “Mossad behind blast that killed Iran missile chief,” The Jerusalem Post, November 15, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  11. Ben Feller, “Obama: Iran sanctions have 'enormous bite,'” Businessweek, November 14, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  12. Jaseb, “Iranian nuclear scientist killed in Tehran," report; See also “U.S. prepares to send ‘bunker-busting’ bombs to U.A.E. to help contain Iran,” The National Post, November 12, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:; See also Huma Khan, “The Facility at Qom,” Blog, ABC News – Political Punch, September 25, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  13. “Russia to freeze missile sale to Iran, Putin tells Sarkozy,” Reuters and Haaretz Service, November 6, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  14. The United Nations, Department of Public Information, News and Media Division, “Security Council Imposes Additional Sanctions on Iran,Voting 12 in Favour to 2 Against, with 1 Abstention,” Security Council – 6335th Meeting, June 9, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  15. Jeremy Laurence, “U.S. urges South Korea to cut Iran petrochemical imports,” Rueters, December 5, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  16. Yochi J. Dreazen, “Why the U.S. Is Holding Back on Its Most Powerful Iran Sanction—for Now,” The Atlantic, November 22, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  17. Michael Hirsh, “Clinton’s Moment?,” National Journal, February 18, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  18. Sue Pleming, “U.S. State Department speaks to Twitter over Iran,” Reuters, June 16, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  19. “Statement from Gov. Rick Perry Regarding Sanctions for Iran’s Central Bank,” Rick Perry for President 2012, December 1, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  20. Jay Solomon, “Senators Press Obama on Iran's Central Bank,” The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  21. Patrick Clawson and Simon Henderson, “Impact of Sanctioning Iran's Central Bank,” PolicyWatch #1877, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 29, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  22. Don Melvin, “EU foreign ministers fail to agree on Iran oil ban,” Associated Press, December 1, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  23. Laurent Thomet, “EU-US impose new Syria sanctions, UN says 4,000 killed,” Agence France-Presse, December 1, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  24. Alice Fordham, “Turkey announces sanctions against Syria,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  25. Emanuele Ottolenghi and Claudia Rosett, “The Big Business Behind Iran's Proliferation,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  26. Matthew Stabley, “Iranian Faction Plotted to Kill Saudi Ambassador: Holder,” NBC News - Washington, October 13, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:

  27. “Attack on UK embassy in Iran 'had support of the state,'” BBC News, December 2, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. Available at:


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