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Last week, Representative Tom Lantos [D-CA-12] announced his intention to step down in January 2009 due to pancreatic cancer. Lantos is chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and second in seniority on the Oversight Committee. His departure creates a critical opening in the democratic leadership and the potential to steer a new course in US-Iran relations.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is the place where important FP policy decisions are hashed out and related legislation goes to live or die. It is a critical forum to address US policy issues such as sanctions and diplomacy. It is extremely difficult to get any foreign relations legislation passed in the House without the chairman’s backing.

Lantos held a few hearings on Iran earlier last year, but was never able to get a hearing on human rights in Iran off the ground because all the credible experts on the subject refused to testify and/or advised him against it.

His problem is not surprising. The list of those currently living inside Iran willing to put their lives and cause on the line to publicly testify before the US government is extremely short. This, coupled with the committee’s track record on Iran is reason enough for legitimate Iranian human rights experts and activists to stay away. Over the last year, Lantos’ committee has been a virtual printing press of resolutions condemning Iran and accusing it of all kind of malfeasances, both real and unsubstantiated. Lantos spearheaded the effort to get additional punitive sanctions on Iran (HR 1400 passed in the House) and is backing additional sanctions measures by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL-18].

Lantos co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which he heads with Senator Sam Brownback [R-KS].

Berman, Ackerman in line for Lantos spot

Speaker of the House Nanci Pelosi has said she will offer California Democrat Howard Berman [D-CA-28] Lantos’ spot. Berman is next in line due to his seniority in the committee, followed by Gary Ackerman [D-NY-5], who chairs the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee.

However, it is not clear whether Berman will accept the top job, because he would have to step down from his post as chair of the sub-committee on Courts, Internet and Intellectual Property Rights at the Judiciary Committee.

Berman is the go to guy on intellectual property rights and the Democrats’ primary liaison to the entertainment community and thus may be reluctant to abandon his ongoing work in that area.

Like Lantos, Berman spearheaded the sanctions against Iran and Libya in 1996.

In 2007, neither the House nor its counterpart in the Senate was very active on Iran, despite sky-high tensions and the release of the NIE. But that may change this session, Joe Biden [D-DE] returns to the senate after a short-lived presidential primary bid and his chair at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Biden is expected to hold a full committee hearing on Iran in the next month or so.

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