The United States reiterated its warning to Iran Tuesday to halt uranium enrichment and return to nuclear negotiations, saying world powers are prepared to seek punitive action against Tehran if does otherwise. The comments of a top State Department official came during a congressional hearing on Iran.
In testimony before the joint House-Senate Economic Committee, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for energy, sanctions and commodities, Paul Simons, urged Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and return to talks with the European Union.
He warned Iran against doing otherwise. "If Iran chooses the other path and continues on its current course, it will face greater international isolation and strong U.N. Security Council action," he said.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany early last month offered Iran a package of incentives, including assistance for its civilian nuclear program, if it halts enrichment and returns to the talks.
Iran says it will respond to the offer next month.
Despite denials from Tehran, the United States believes Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
While Simons held out the prospect of international sanctions if Iran does not respond positively to the offer, another witness argued that such action may not stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Jeffery Schott is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics. "Leaders in Iran feel that nuclear weapons will bring them regional dominance and that just like India and Pakistan, the west will grudgingly accept their accession to the nuclear club without significant retribution," he said.
Still, Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says sanctions remain useful.
"Targeted sanctions may not cripple the Iranian economy to the point where it is financially incapable of developing a nuclear weapon, however, coupled with concerted diplomatic efforts, the right mix of sanctions has the potential to convince Iran to abandon any nuclear weapons ambitions it may harbor," he said.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering renewing decade-old U.S. sanctions against Iran that are aimed at deterring foreign companies from energy sector investments in that country.
The Iran Sanctions Extension Act of 2006, which has been endorsed by the Bush administration, would replace the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. With the warming of relations between Washington and Tripoli, any sanctions legislation would exclude Libya.