U.S. lawmakers are calling for senior Obama administration officials to step up the pressure on Iran, after an alleged Iranian plot was disrupted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Several members of Congress complained that sanctions against Iran do not appear to be working, and that stronger action is required.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on "Iran and Syria: the Next Steps" has been scheduled for weeks. But the dramatic revelation earlier this week by Attorney General Eric Holder that members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington dominated the hearing.
Republican Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the plot a wake-up call, and questioned the wisdom of continued efforts by the Obama administration to engage with the Iranian government.
"You believe that engagement with a country whose leaders have reportedly sanctioned this assassination plot, because money transfers would have very difficult in a country like that were it not approved by higher-ups, that engagement with this country is possible?" said Ros-Lehtinen.
The Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, defended administration policies towards Iran, saying President Barack Obama has imposed the toughest sanctions on Tehran of any country in the world.
"This administration is committed to addressing the continued threat posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions, its support for international terrorism, its de-stabilizing activities in the region and its human rights abuses at home," said Sherman.
Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said the administration is considering new sanctions targeting the Central Bank of Iran, and he said it is well aware of the threat.
"This is a dramatic reminder that the urgent and serious threat we face from Iran is not limited to Iran's nuclear ambitions," said Cohen.
But Republican Representative Connie Mack of Florida joined many other lawmakers in expressing skepticism that threatening more sanctions is enough of a response to an alleged attempt to blow up a restaurant to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
"I am not sure with those comments that I have got a lot of confidence that the threat is being taken seriously enough," said Mack.
Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman of New York raised the question of how the United States would have responded if the alleged plot had succeeded. "And also, if they were, if they, heaven forbid, would have been successful in that attack, what would have been our response?"
President Barack Obama has said the United States will continue to apply the toughest sanctions possible against Iran, and will not take any options off the table.
Treasury Undersecretary Cohen argued the sanctions against Iran and Syria are having an impact.
"As a result of these sanctions, the [Syrian] Assad regime is struggling to find buyers for its oil, to access foreign currency, and to maintain economic stability."
Analysts say more congressional investigations into the alleged Iranian assassination plot are likely to follow, and that the pressure from lawmakers on the president to step up the pressure on Iran is likely to continue.