The United States is readying a range of unilateral sanctions against Iran, as well as additional measures with international partners, should the Islamic republic fail to answer fresh questions about its nuclear ambitions posed by a report released Tuesday by a United Nations watchdog.
While U.S. officials see the International Atomic Energy Agency's report as a vindication of its long-held assertion that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons, the new intelligence wasn't likely to be a game-changer. U.S. officials insisted they were still focused on using sanctions and diplomatic channels to punish Iran for its nuclear efforts, and steered clear of any suggestion that the international community was moving closer to taking military action.
The IAEA report reveals for the first time that Iran is suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose is the development of nuclear arms. It's the strongest sign yet that Iran seeks to build a nuclear arsenal, despite Tehran's claims to the contrary.
Senior Obama administration officials said much of the intelligence contained in the report was already known to the U.S., though the report was unique in its scope and level of details. And it puts the U.N.'s imprimatur on some claims and strands of evidence gathered by the U.S., which could prove valuable as the Obama administration lobbies governments around the world to toughen their own sanctions against Iran.
One official said the U.S. would be consulting with international partners in the coming days on ways to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, though they offered no detail on what entities in Iran could be targeted.
The U.S. already has slapped sanctions on dozens of Iranian government agencies, financial and shipping companies as well as officials over the nuclear program and could target additional institutions like Iran's Central Bank. It also has pushed the U.N. Security Council, which previously has imposed four rounds of international sanctions on Iran, for increased penalties.
But in light of Iran's continued defiance, some, including many in Israel, have argued that military action is the only solution. Speculation has run high in Israel over the past week that the government there is contemplating a strike, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned of that possibility ahead of the report's release.
Israel considers Iran to be its most dangerous enemy and the only regional power that poses an existential threat to it.
U.S. officials said they were consulting regularly with the Israeli government on the nuclear threat posed by Iran, but wouldn't take a position on Israel's warning of possible military action.
Despite the fresh intelligence showing that Iran appears to be pushing forward in its quest for nuclear weapons, Obama administration officials insist economic sanctions are taking a toll on Tehran. Officials said Tuesday that Iran's economy had been severely slowed and the country increasingly isolated under the pressure of sanctions.
All of the U.S. and administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the report.
Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the IAEA report showed the international community was running out of time to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. She urged Congress to pass two bills recently adopted by her committee that would tighten and expand sanctions on Iran's energy sector.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was planning to hold a hearing in the coming weeks to look at additional steps the U.S. can take against Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's report outlines the extent of its findings on the Islamic republic's alleged secret nuclear weapons work, including clandestine procurement of equipment and design information needed to make nuclear arms; high explosives testing and detonator development to set off a nuclear charge; and computer modeling of a core of a nuclear warhead.
One senior administration official said the computer modeling was of particular concern because there is no application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear bomb.
Iran contends that its program is designed to generate electricity, not build weapons.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have ratcheted up in recent weeks following the Obama administration's contention that the Iran's elite foreign action unit, the Quds Force, was behind a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. in Washington.
Iran has vehemently denied anything to do with the alleged plot.