Washington, DC – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared before separate Congressional panels Tuesday and Wednesday to testify on the State Department’s budget and priorities. The hearings featured a series of pointed exchanges regarding Iran’s nuclear program, US sanctions, and the terrorist designation of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).
Clinton reiterated the Obama Administration position, first made explicit in an interview with the BBC in December, that the United States, as well as the international community, could accept a verifiably peaceful enrichment program in Iran if the country allays international concerns about its nuclear program.
Responding to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Clinton said, “It has been our position that, under very strict conditions, Iran would sometime in the future, having responded to the international community’s concerns and irreversibly shut down its nuclear weapons program, have a right [to enrichment] under IAEA inspection.”
Chabot, who is the Chairman of the House Middle East Subcommittee, suggested the US should return to the “zero-enrichment” stance towards Iran adopted under the Bush Administration. He highlighted a Senate letter demanding that the US reject any solution to the Iran nuclear issue that allows a civilian enrichment in Iran. Non-proliferation experts have warned that such a position would pose unrealistic obstacles to a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue and have supported the Obama Administration’s stance.
Several House Representatives also questioned Clinton regarding the MEK, an organization designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) since the inception of the terrorist list in 1997. Top Democrat on the Terrorism subcommittee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), was among several Representatives who endorsed removing the group from the list. Sherman has previously said the MEK, which enjoys little support among Iranians because of attacks its carried out against civilians and its allegiance with Saddam Hussein, should not be considered a terrorist organization because “they are enemies of enemies of the United States.”
More than a half-dozen of the MEK’s supporters sat in on the House hearing, a fact acknowledged by Clinton. Organization supporters also demonstrated outside of the Senate.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who has introduced a resolution calling for the MEK to be removed from the terror list, compared the organization to other historical opposition movements in the Middle East. Iran’s Green Movement has publicly denounced the MEK and leaders of the opposition like Mehdi Karroubi have warned that the Iranian government seeks to “revive this hypocritical dead organization” to undermine Iran’s Green Movement.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) also asked for “US protection of the many residents of Camp Ashraf,” the organization’s base in Iraq. While Ros-Lehtinen emphasized an Iranian and Iraqi government role in abuses at Camp Ashraf, Human Rights Watch has reported that MEK leadership actually commits abuses within the camp, including forced separation from family and physical abuse that has led to death. The RAND Corporation has also reported that the MEK is “cult” and that up to 70% of the individuals at Camp Ashraf are held by MEK leadership against their will.
Clinton told the committee that the State Department is currently reviewing the MEK’s designation as a terrorist group and is committed to protecting the residents of Camp Ashraf as the United States reduces its presence in Iraq.
Members of Congress also repeatedly pressed Clinton on the issue of sanctions, urging for unilateral measures against firms from China, Venezuela, and elsewhere that have allegedly invested in Iran’s energy and banking sectors in violation of US sanction law. Clinton emphasized successful efforts to build an international sanctions regime and noted that the Obama administration is the first to impose sanctions on Iran under the Iran Sanctions Act. “I became the first secretary of state to impose any sanctions,” Clinton said.
Ros-Lehtinen and others in Congress are reportedly drafting new sanctions measures to expand Congress’ role in the sanctions process and limit the President’s authority. Clinton warned against actions that could weaken the international sanctions effort. “When you’re trying to sanction Iran,” she said, “no matter how powerful the United States is economically and no matter how much we can do on our own, it is imperative we get the international community to support it, otherwise there is just too much leakage.”