Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Getty Images)President Barack Obama ramped up sanctions on Iran Tuesday as senior aides disputed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's contention that such punitive measures in the past have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program "by one iota."
Mitt Romney's campaign has repeatedly cited Netanyahu's words as part of an effort to paint the president's strategy for keeping Tehran from getting nuclear weapons as a failure and attack him as insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Asked about the prime minister's comments, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, told reporters on a conference call that "it is certainly the case that Iran has not yet decided to come in line with their international obligations."
But "we believe the sanctions have had an impact on the Iranian program insofar as they have denied the Iranian government access to revenue that they otherwise would have," said Rhodes. And sanctions have been "making it much more difficult for Iran to procure technology that would be directly relevant to their program."
Robert Einhorn, a top nonproliferation and arms control official at the State Department, said the United States has "a lot of success" in thwarting Iran's efforts to purchase materiel to advance its nuclear and missile program. "We haven't stopped those programs, obviously, but we think these efforts have had an impeding effect," Einhorn said on the same conference call.
"Where we certainly agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu is on the fundamental question that we have not yet seen the Iranian government make a decision to come in line with their international obligations," Rhodes said. "So we share very much the assessment of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Netanyahu that the purpose of the sanctions is to change the calculus of the Iranian government with respect to their nuclear program."
"And until they make that decision, we need to continue to increase the pressure," Rhodes said.
Iran stands in violation of repeated U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze its uranium enrichment program. That process can be a key step towards developing a nuclear weapon, but Iran insists its goals are peaceful. American officials are divided on whether the Islamic republic wants to develop an actual nuclear weapon or, stopping just short of that, the ability to create one. Israel, which is thought to have an undeclared nuclear arsenal, has warned that it cannot tolerate the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran and signaled that it will consider a unilateral military strike to prevent that outcome.
"We continue to be dissatisfied—as Prime Minister Netanyahu is—with Iran's continued failure to live up to its international obligations," said Rhodes.
The new sanctions, announced in a presidential order, aim to tighten the economic vise on Iran's oil exports—its chief source of cash—by punishing firms or individuals that help Iran circumvent existing prohibitions under U.S. law. The Treasury Department also announced sanctions on two financial institutions—Bank of Kunlun in China and Elaf Islamic Bank in Iraq—for facilitating Tehran's petroleum sales.
"Since taking office, we have presented the Iranian government with a clear choice: come in line with your international obligations and rejoin the community of nations, or face growing consequences," Obama said in a statement. "With these actions, we are once again reaffirming our commitment to hold the Iranian government accountable for its actions."
"The United States remains committed to a diplomatic solution, but the onus is on Iran to abide by its international obligations," Obama said. "If the Iranian government continues its defiance, there should be no doubt that the United States and our partners will continue to impose increasing consequences."
New sanctions also target firms or individuals that do business with the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, or the Central Bank of Iran, or help Iran's government acquire dollars or precious metals.