10/19/2011 08:21 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2011

The Effort to Isolate Iran

The Obama administration's charges that an Iranian paramilitary force plotted the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States have prompted denials and counter-charges from the Iranian regime. While Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has said the government is ready to investigate U.S. claims, admission of official guilt is seen as unlikely.

Stressing the gravity of the accusations, U.S. officials are pressing Iran on multiple fronts. Washington is hoping to use the assassination plot to build international momentum to isolate Iran and put pressure on the regime to rethink its controversial nuclear program, which may include new sanctions. The Obama administration is reportedly urging the UN nuclear watchdog -- the IAEA -- to release new classified intelligence information in its quarterly report next month to show Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons capability. Iran repeatedly claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. Iran also came under fire for its widespread human rights abuses, including the use of torture and secret executions, according to a new UN report.

The case of the alleged terror plot was submitted at Saudi Arabia's request to the UN Security Council, but it is not clear what action Saudi Arabia or the United States will seek from the body. U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to "apply the toughest sanctions and continue to mobilize the international community" to isolate Iran.

U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen told the Senate Banking Committee that the United States was considering the possibility of sanctioning Iran's central bank. Washington has already designated five people, including four senior officers of the Quds Force, in relation with the terrorism plot plus sanctioned a major Iranian commercial airline for supporting the IRGC and Quds Force. In solidarity, the UK also froze the assets of the five men. So far, Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, have reacted cautiously to the U.S. allegations.

Amid the new U.S.-led sanctions campaign are fresh signs of the difficulties Iran faces in its nuclear program. A new report from Washington-based think tank ISIS says the country's nuclear program has suffered significant setbacks due to a 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack, assassinations of several top Iranian nuclear scientists, and powerful sanctions that have limited access to nuclear materials and equipment. However, the report concludes that Iran's atomic program continues "on a trajectory toward being dedicated to producing weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons." It recommends that the international community effectively implement sanctions to further limit Iran's ability to advance its centrifuge program.

Charles D. Ferguson, president of the independent Federation of American Scientists, also recommends targeted sanctions or tougher export controls that ensure Iran does not get the equipment required to sustain its nuclear program. However, broader sanctions such as those targeting the banking sector or the economy as a whole are misguided, he says, because of the pain inflicted on the Iranian people.

U.S. policy toward Tehran, which has included toughening of sanctions as well as offers of engagement and greater economic cooperation, has so far failed to persuade Tehran to halt uranium enrichment. James Dobbins of Rand Corporation says in the new CFR Crisis Guide that it's important to continue to bolster sanctions "both to dissuade Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, but also to dissuade other countries from going down a similar path."

But Vali Nasr of Tufts University says there are limits to what sanctions can do to alter Iranian behavior, largely because the country has access to oil revenue that lessens the impact, and because Iran is accustomed to coping with sanctions. Further, some analysts express doubt that any new measures will persuade the Iranian government to give up its nuclear program. "I don't see the Iranians retreating one iota on the nuclear program", says proliferation expert Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Background Materials

The Lengthening List of Iran Sanctions, CFR Backgrounder

Towards Enhanced Safeguards for Iran's Nuclear Program, Federation of American Scientists

Iran-United States: After the Iranian Bomb, National Defense University

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