The United States has taken a step closer to imposing a raft of further sanctions on Iran, even as increasingly shrill rhetoric, Israeli military tests, and British media coverage signal intensifying saber-rattling toward Iran.
Three weeks after US officials accused Iran of an assassination plot to be carried out on US soil, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted yesterday to expand sanctions against Iran. The far-ranging bill includes targeting Iran's central bank if the US president determines it is facilitating terrorism, financing nuclear weapons development, or supporting Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Any such action against Iran's central bank – which serves as a clearinghouse for nearly all oil and gas payments in Iran – could make it more difficult for Iran to sell crude oil, its chief source of cash, by blocking companies doing business with it from also working with US financial institutions. Some Iranian officials have likened such a step to an act of war.
Among many other things, the bill would also forbid American diplomats any contact with Iranian officials without advance congressional approval, and raise the bar further for exports of any US-made item – which would include civilian aircraft parts, an especially sore point for Iranians and their crash-prone domestic fleet of aging planes.
The Senate is also working on a similar sanctions measure that has bipartisan support, which would then need to be reconciled with the House bill before becoming law. Senior US lawmakers spoke of their plans to "hand the Iranian regime a nice holiday present," but critics say it will be counterproductive.
"This bill is beyond extreme," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington, in a posting on the group's website.
"This will punish ordinary people in Iran, spike gas prices worldwide, and cost jobs in the US," said Mr. Abdi, whose group has argued for US engagement with Iran. "We've been down this road before. Sanctions on Iraq's central bank failed to change Saddam Hussein's regime, contributed to humanitarian suffering, and ultimately ended with a war."
Israel test-launches powerful missiles for first time in three years
The call for more sanctions erupted anew in Washington after the Obama administration last month revealed details of what it alleged to be an Iranian plot, approved at high levels in Iran, to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington and target the Saudi and Israeli embassies.
In subsequent hearings, some US lawmakers have called for strikes against Iran, to damage Iran's nuclear program and to "kill" those who they charged had been "killing" Americans for three decades.
The sanctions move comes amid a perfect storm of events that are raising pressure on Iran, particularly from Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has this week tried to persuade his cabinet to support an attack on Iran, and wants US military action as well.
The Islamic Republic's arch-foe Israel test-fired a nuclear-capable long-range Jericho 3 ballistic missile yesterday morning, the first such test since 2008.
The intercontinental ballistic missile has a range and capability that far outstrips any other missiles in the region, including those in Iran's arsenal. With a range of more than 7,000 miles – and longer, with a smaller warhead – the Jericho 3 can fly roughly three times farther than any target in Iran, and the test was heralded by Defense Minister Ehud Barak as an "impressive technological achievement" of Israel's "defense industries."
Also on Wednesday, Israel released details of a joint air force exercise with Italy over the Mediterranean Sea that mimicked a long-distance strike, such as that which might be used on Iran. The squadron commander said, "We simulated a common enemy," according to The Jerusalem Post.
Iran reacted immediately and predictably, with Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, Iran's deputy head of the general staff, vowing a "crushing response" to any "illegal and adventurist action against the Islamic Republic."
"Our forces can powerfully and mightily protect security of Iran's waters and coasts and enemies are well informed of this fact," Hejazi told the Fars News Agency. "[T]hese threats by the world arrogance [US and Israel] have no credibility or value to us."
Likewise, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Wednesday that Iran was "always ready for war."
"Iran has always been threatened by Israel. This is not new for us," Mr. Salehi told the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul during an Afghanistan security summit. "We are very confident of ourselves. We can defend our country."
Britain braces for military action against Iran
Further signals of confrontation with Iran came from Britain on Wednesday, where the Guardian reported that the Ministry of Defence had been "stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran," because "the US may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities."
British officials said President Barack Obama "has no wish to embark on a new and provocative military venture" before the US election next year, but "warned the calculus could change because of mounting anxiety over intelligence gathered by Western agencies, and [Iran's] more belligerent posture."
Some of that intelligence may be made public next week, when the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is set to release its latest quarterly report on Iran's nuclear program.
The IAEA has for years confirmed no diversion of safeguarded nuclear material in Iran, but said that continuing concerns about "alleged weapons studies" – designs that Iran says were fabricated by a hostile intelligence agency – have prevented the IAEA from declaring Iran's program to be entirely peaceful.
UN Security Council resolutions, backed up by four sets of sanctions, have ordered Iran to halt uranium enrichment – which Iran says is only for peaceful production of nuclear power – until the weaponization concerns are resolved.
The report next week is expected to spell out, for the first time, details of those alleged studies. The Guardian quoted a Western official predicting: "This will be a game-changer in the Iranian nuclear dossier."
Dangerous game of escalation
Analysts say they have seen such escalations before, often building up to new sanctions on Iran, and not to war.
"What's happening now between Jerusalem and Tehran is a war of signals and public threats," wrote Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz today, noting that these events "recall the eve of a war."
"Almost anything goes in this war of news.... At least some of these moves are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign whose purpose is not necessarily an Israeli attack," they say, adding that it might be aimed instead at imposing "paralyzing sanctions" on Iran.
"But this is a dangerous game," the Israeli writers warn. "A few more weeks of tension and one party or another might make a fatal mistake that will drag the region into war."