The Obama administration fully agrees with Israel about the need to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon even if it doesn't share Jerusalem's sense of urgency, said two top presidential advisors.
"I'm really pissed off that there are people out there who doubt our resolve to stop Iran," Denis McDonough, the deputy national security advisor, told a group of Jewish leaders last week, according to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
Dennis Ross, President Obama's just departed top advisor on Iran and the Middle East, said the administration's goal is "not containment but prevention," and there is still time to ratchet up the pressure before making a decision about using force to keep Iran from getting the bomb.
As part of that pressure, the House passed and sent to the Senate on Wednesday several measures to intensify financial and political sanctions on Tehran.
The administration has been criticized for not moving fast enough and for comments by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that gave a strong – and public – case against a military strike at Iranian nuclear facilities. The problematic word in that sentence was "public." It gave aid and comfort to the Iranians and headaches to the Israelis who prefer the option very open and the Iranians very worried.
Ross, a veteran of five administrations, was back at his old perch as counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and giving his first public speech since leaving the White House.
Israel feels Tehran is closer to deployment of a nuclear weapon than Washington does, he said, adding the pressure of economic and other sanctions has isolated Iran internationally and brought about the most serious internal power struggle since the 1979 revolution.
There is no doubt Iran is working to develop a nuclear weapon but economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and technical problems are taking a toll and presenting the West with more time and opportunity to halt the program. However, he added, "We're not quite there yet."
The sanctions represent "the most severe economic onslaught that any country has experienced," he said. "They are feeling the stress, and the reality is their position is a good deal weaker than it was."
Nonetheless, their nuclear program continues, he said, and Obama "is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons…and when he said all options remain on the table, it doesn't mean that force is his first choice, but it means that that's an option he's prepared to exercise."
The House Wednesday passed legislation to tighten the pressure on Iran by extending sanctions to companies involved in the oil industry, including on investments, selling Iran goods or services used in refineries, or providing Iran with refined products worth $5 million or more in a year, Reuters reported. The legislation goes to the Senate, which is not expected to act before taking its winter break.
A separate sanctions measure, however, part of the larger defense spending bill, passed 410-11, and is expected to pass the Senate Thursday and go to the President for his signature this week. The bill imposes tough penalties on foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran's central bank.
Speaking of the Arab awakening, Ross said no one, not the American experts and not those in the Arab world who were the most outspoken advocates of change and reform, saw it coming.
Iran initially sought to take credit for the Arab awakening, claiming their revolution had inspired it, but for most in the region "this was not just hypocritical, this was laughable," Ross said.
"At the very moment that people were discovering their voice in this part of the world, the Iranian approach was to squash any independent voices within Iran," he noted.
Iran's only Arab state ally, Bashar Assad's Syria, has been called a dead man walking. The uprisings are spreading, the death toll rising, the sanctions growing, the isolation tightening – and Iran is identified with all that is wrong in Syria and so is Hizbullah, Iran's number one proxy. "Iran is more discredited in the region than it has been," and so are its allies Syria and Hizbullah, Ross said.