The Cable

Steinberg grilled on Iran

Lawmakers are already attacking the credibility of upcoming inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, preparing their push for greater sanctions if and when the inspections fail to find a smoking gun. The core of the argument being made by GOP senators is that the Iranians bargained for a lag time longer than the United States wanted ...

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Lawmakers are already attacking the credibility of upcoming inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, preparing their push for greater sanctions if and when the inspections fail to find a smoking gun.

The core of the argument being made by GOP senators is that the Iranians bargained for a lag time longer than the United States wanted before opening their newly discovered Qom nuclear facility to international inspectors, raising concerns that they will scrub the facility of incriminating material.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama pressed the issue with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg at a meeting of the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday morning and Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker piled on.

“Is there any question in anybody’s mind that during this period of time between now and October 25 that much of the facility that we are getting ready to inspect will be dismantled?” Corker asked.

Steinberg said that the United States had wanted inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to take place within two weeks, but had to settle for the Oct. 25 inspection date, more than three and a half weeks after the Oct. 1 meeting between Iran and five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.

“It’s our judgment that this is still a period of time that we can still get a good assessment of what’s going on,” Steinberg argued, while trying to say that the IAEA team needed some time to prepare for the inspections.

The Shelby-Corker-Steinberg exchange comes only one day after Andrew Semmel, the IAEA’s Washington representative, said that there was a real danger that Iran would have too much time to scrub the Qom facility before the inspectors arrived.

“It gives three weeks for the Iranians to clean up anything they might want to hide,” Semmel said, “They’ve been known to do this in the past, whitewashing and so forth.”

Semmel also said the whole IAEA inspection exercise might be “perfunctory,” because it’s not clear that the Qom facility had been developed yet to the stage where really incriminating material would have been stored there.

What Iran watchers are really looking for are definitive signs at Qom that Russian scientists have contributed to the Iranian nuclear program, after reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a list of Russian nuclear scientists helping Iran during his secret meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Steinberg also indicated that the administration does not support, nor does it oppose, the bill put forth by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and Jon Kyl, which would bar any refined petroleum products from being sold to Iran, saying that the administration wanted to preserve maximum flexibility.

That legislation has 75 Senate cosponsors.

ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AFP/Getty Images

(Correction: Netanyahu’s title corrected to “prime minister.”) 

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