WASHINGTON – The Bush administration ratcheted up pressure on Tehran last week with new sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. Senate — but several lawmakers are wondering whether the latest step is a move closer to military action.
The State Department insists the latest action and recent rhetoric from U.S. officials is merely potent diplomacy, but several Democrats aren't so sure that kind of language will work.
"It's important we keep a military option on the table. But it is also important that we not play right into the hands of the same fanatic who threatens Israel, by talking about attacking Iran so much," Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced sanctions on the IRGC, the elite military force under the control of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and on three of Iran's largest banks and eight people said to be engaged in missile trade and backing of extremist groups throughout the Middle East.
Rice said the moves would further isolate the Islamic republic's government by further distancing it from the international economy and discouraging its trading partners from continuing to do business with it.
"These actions will help to protect the international financial system from the illicit activities of the Iranian government and they will provide a powerful deterrent to every international bank and company that thinks of doing business with the Iranian government," Rice said in an announcement with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
"If the Iranian government fulfills its international obligation to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, I will join my British, French, Russian, Chinese and German colleagues and I will meet with my Iranian counterpart any time, anywhere. We will be open to the discussion of any issue. But if Iran's rulers choose to continue down a path of confrontation, the United States will act with the international community to resist these threats of the Iranian regime," Rice continued.
The statement followed several weeks in which President Bush and other administration officials stepped up their commentary on Iran, and repeated their insistence that Iran's nuclear weapons pursuit not be allowed to continue.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told FOX News on Sunday that the talking points are an attempt to make diplomatic efforts more effective.
"In the absence of any action, you have two possible options, you have acquiescence ... or you use force to deal with the fact that Iran is trying to obtain weapons. ... What we're trying to do is a third route" that includes confronting Iran's behavior while also giving Tehran plenty of opportunity to engage in negotiations, McCormack said.
McCormack added that the United States is not alone in its efforts. The European Union is debating whether to place wider sanctions on Iran, and the U.N. Security Council has already approved two resolutions relating to Chapter 7 of its charter that deals with sanctions.
But lawmakers are mixed in their response to the administration's actions. Some Democrats have charged that some of the statements out of the administration in the last few weeks are merely precursors to war.
The administration is clearly on a "drum beat" toward war, Democratic presidential candidate and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." He suggested that the administration is looking at the amendment passed by the Senate as a means to incite war with Iran, action Dodd opposes.
Levin agreed that allowing Iran to gain a nuclear weapon is dangerous, but the world will stay unified against Iran through sanctions rather than military action.
"What we've got to stop them from doing is acquiring a nuclear weapon. It's important that we do that," Levin, D-Mich. said. And there's two ways to do it. One is to unite the world, to have very strong sanctions, to keep tightening that rope around Iran to make sure that they don't get to where they want to go, to do everything possible to avoid it."
Levin said Bush overstepped the boundaries when he suggested during a press conference last week that to avoid World War III, Iran must be stopped from gaining knowledge of nuclear technology.
Bush should not "just give Iran the propaganda weapon. Don't give them the can of gasoline that they want to pour on to the fire. Don't give them the weapon that they use against us that we're trying to bully them. ... And that's what this hot rhetoric does when it's just constantly repeated about World War III or that we're going to use a military option. Vice President Cheney just goes way too far. The president went too far this week," Levin said.
"I think the president is justified in trying to wake up the world," countered Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who appeared with Levin on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We don't need to talk softly. We need to act boldly because time is not on our side."
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain also expressed agreement with the Bush administration's toughened sanctions against Iran, stating that placing a financial stranglehold on the country is preferable to military action.
Speaking of his own approach, the presidential hopeful said that he wasn't going to "telegraph punches" about what his administration would or would not do militarily if Iran were to continue its nuclear pursuits.
"I can say that we cannot allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. But I do believe to talk about specifics, bombardment, would be a terrible mistake. ... the Iranians would know when I'm president, they're facing somebody who's not going to let them have it. But I'm not going to make a lot of empty threats that I can't carry out," McCain said.
The Senate amendment to the defense bill has been a controversial subject on the campaign trail. Though it passed 76-22, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is equating Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton's vote for it to her support for the resolution that allowed the U.S. to enter the war in Iraq. Obama did not vote on the resolution.
In response, the Clinton camp responded by ripping Obama as a hypocrite, saying he had supported keeping troops in Iraq to fend off the threat from Iran.
"Stagnant in the polls and struggling to revive his once-buoyant campaign, Senator Obama has abandoned the politics of hope and embarked on a journey in search of a campaign issue to use against Senator Clinton," it says. "Never mind that he made the very argument he is now criticizing back in November 2006."
FOX News' Aaron Bruns, L.A. Holmes and Cara Schayer contributed to this report.