Story highlights

Sanctions against Iran working, Treasury official says

Another official says existing sanctions work if all apply them

U.S. claims Iran behind assassination plot


Testifying before senators infuriated by reports of an alleged Iranian assassination plot, top Obama administration officials insisted Thursday that economic sanctions on Iran are working and vowed to continue tightening pressure on Tehran.

“Our efforts are paying off,” said David Cohen, Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial Intelligence. “Iran is now facing unprecedented levels of financial and commercial isolation.”

From the White House, President Barack Obama also weighed in, telling reporters at a news conference with the South Korean president that “Iran’s economy is in a much more difficult state now than it was several years ago in part because we’ve been able to unify the international community in naming Iran’s misbehavior and saying that it’s got to stop and there will be consequences to its actions.”

“We’re going to apply the toughest sanctions and continue to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and that Iran pays the price for this kind of behavior,” Obama said.

At the Senate Banking Committee hearing, Cohen cited the economic toll sanctions already have taken: “The number and quality of foreign banks willing to transact with designated Iranian financial institutions has dropped precipitously over the last year. Iran’s shrinking access to financial services and trade finance has made it extremely difficult for Iran to pay for imports and receive payment for exports.”

Cohen conceded, however, that “there is still much to be done to prevent Iran from evading sanctions already in place.”

Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs, told senators that although there is “very strong… consensus that is crucial for maintaining the most robust sanctions regime we have ever had,” it has “not yet deterred Iran’s nuclear program, but we believe it is making progress to do exactly that.”

The administration has been urging other countries not only to impose stronger sanctions on Iran but to rigorously enforce sanctions that are on the books. “Sanctions are most effective and they are strongest when they are internationalized and people throughout the world and governments throughout the world are enforcing those sanctions,” Sherman told senators.

Several lawmakers are pushing for the administration to apply crippling sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank in order to “collapse” its currency.

Other senators want to pressure countries to stop buying Iran’s oil. “The sale of Iranian crude represents between 50 to 75 percent of the Iranian regime’s budget, literally fueling the regime’s ability to export terrorism, build a nuclear weapons program, and repress its population,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey. “It’s clear to me that if this is one of the greatest global concerns we face, it is clear that we must find a way to target this life blood of the Iranian regime.”

Cohen said the U.S. will put pressure on the Central Bank which, he said, could have a “potentially powerful impact on Iran.”

“All options are on the table,” Cohen said, quoting from a letter Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to the committee in late August.

A naturalized U.S. citizen holding Iranian and U.S. passports is in custody, and another – a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – is likewise charged in the alleged murder-for-hire scheme targeting Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that elements of Iran’s government directed the plan.