New Sanctions, Delisting MEK from Terror List, and War Options Top House Committee’s Iran Agenda
Washington, DC – As the House of Representatives prepares to switch from Democratic to Republican control in January, signals of the coming Iran agenda were on display as the Foreign Affairs Committee held its final Iran hearing under the chairmanship of Howard Berman (D-CA) on Wednesday.
Two top Obama Administration officials spent much of the hearing touting the President’s success in putting “draconian” sanctions in place against Iran, as called for by Congress. But the officials, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department William Burns and Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Department of Treasury Stuart Levey, often found themselves on the defensive.
“We’ve wasted enough time – fourteen years,” said Ileana Ros Lehtinien(R-FL), the top Republican on the Committee who will become its chairwoman next year. “No more waivers, exceptions, excuses.”
While Burns and Levey highlighted that the Administration had gone further than any of its predecessors in enforcing sanctions, the Committee was largely unimpressed and demanded more strenuous measures.
“If these sanctions don’t work, then the next step would be a blockade,” said Don Manzullo (R-IL), looking over his shoulder to Ros Lehtinen. “And the next step would be some type of—you hate to use the word—but military action.”
Gary Ackerman (D-NY), a strong supporter of crippling sanctions passed by Congress earlier this year, pressed the Administration officials to defend the concept that sanctions could actually stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, saying that the US must find an “alternative means”.
Ackerman questioned whether turning Iran into “an economic basket case like North Korea” would be effective. Despite isolation and impoverishment, North Korea became a nuclear weapons state during the Bush Administration.
“You’ve got to have a plan B,” said Ackerman.
Brad Sherman (D-CA) was more blunt. “The king of Saudi Arabia told us what plan B was,” he said, referencing cables released by Wikileaks suggesting the Saudi monarch has called for a US strikes on Iran.
Sherman, who has argued that sanctions must punish ordinary Iranians to be effective, urged for the adoption of further sanctions legislation he has proposed. Sherman also called for the passage of a resolution to take the MEK, an organization that enjoyed support from Saddam Hussein and has killed American and Iranian civilians, off of the US terrorist list. Sherman and other members of the Terrorism Subcommittee have demanded more information regarding the MEK’s terrorist designation from the State Department. The CIA recently briefed the Subcommittee on the matter and Burns promised to provide further materials from the State Department.
California Republicans Ted Poe and Dana Rohrbacher expressed their support for the MEK as well. “I thank all the Iranian-Americans that are here today concerned about a mutual concern that we all have and that is Camp Ashraf and the de-listing of the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization, “said Poe, gesturing to a crowd in the audience wearing yellow jerseys emblazed with the text “Harden sanctions. Delist the PMOI.” PMOI, or People’s Mujahedeen Of Iran, is one of MEK’s many aliases.
Poe discussed at length his concern for “the State Department refusing to de-list the MEK,” and for the human rights of MEK members at Camp Ashraf, in Iraq. He questioned Burns as to how the US was encouraging regime change in Iran.
Burns, who would later warn that the Green Movement does not want to be linked to the US through direct support, began to instead discuss US support for universal human rights in Iran, but Poe cut him off. “My question was what are we doing to promote the opposition in Iran. Not human rights.”
Incoming Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen also expressed support for the MEK in her opening remarks. “I’d like to start by recognizing some of my constituents who are in the audience; they are Iranian American, who are staunchly opposed to the Iranian regime,” she said.
Ros-Lehtinen expressed her frustration with the global community’s approach towards Iran. “Since the 1990’s, the US and international efforts to stop growing Iranian threat have been half-hearted at best. The problem is not that a tough approach has failed, but that it has yet to be fully tried,” urged Ros-Lehtinen.
She went on to press Under Secretary Burns on whether the US would demand a full suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. “Previous negotiations where aimed at reaching an agreement that would require Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activity as mandated by the UN Security Council resolution. Is a complete halt a perquisite or is the administration willing to considering a partial halt?” she asked.
Proponents of a non-military resolution to US-Iran issues have warned that pursuing a “zero-enrichment” option is not likely, but that the US should work towards a verifiably peaceful enrichment program in Iran, which is a right reserved for all signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Burns responded, “The P5+1 will be guided by a whole series of Security Council resolutions and IAEA decisions which include the mandate and provision that you mentioned. We will certainly look for ways we can build confidence and steps the Iranians could take and that could be taken together.”
In his testimony, Burns also emphasized that the “Special Rule” in the Congressionally-passed sanctions, which allows the Obama Administration to retain some flexibility regarding sanctions, had allowed the Administration to successfully convince companies to end operations in Iran. But Foreign Affairs Committee members indicated that they may press the Administration to take a more confrontational approach towards enforcing unilateral multilateral sanctions. China, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and India were all discussed by Foreign Affairs Committee members as potential targets.