May 16, 2013

Congress Debates War, Sanctions, Diplomacy and MEK with Top Obama Officials

Washington, D.C. – On Wednesday, the House and Senate held hearings on Iran policy with top administration officials Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of Political Affairs at the U.S. State Department, and David S. Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department.  

Most legislators participating in the hearings called for maximal sanctions, increased military threats, and even cutting off negotiations entirely.  Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there is still time for diplomacy, but the United States needs to look closely at enhancing “military pressure” on Iran, while seeking to “convince the Supreme Leader that his continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening the very existence of his regime.”  Menendez later seemed to back away from those comments, indicating that one of our major challenges is to convince the Supreme Leader that this is a legitimate, global effort to change Iran’s behavior, not Iran’s regime. 

For his part, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), warned of the limitations of sanctions and the need for smarter diplomacy, saying policymakers should “derive some lessons” from the history of when sanctions have worked in the past. ”Iran is not likely to back away from a nuclear program because the U.S. sanctions were so successful that [they] were forced to do it,” he said. “Backing away for that kind of reason would mean a complete loss of internal political legitimacy.  So they have to have a reason to back away from a nuclear program other than ‘O.K., the U.S. beat us.’” 

“If it’s a game of arm wrestling,” Kaine argued, “they’re not going to admit that they lost.” Kaine asked Amb. Sherman ”how creative are you being about not just, ‘we’ll let up on the sanctions’, but other things that would enable internal face-saving?” He pointed out that a critical part of any negotiation is not to “completely paint your opponent into a corner from which they have nothing to do but aggressively come out fighting.”

Sherman defended the current approach, pointing out that at the last meeting Iran had readily acknowledged that they wanted significant sanctions relief in a nuclear deal.  However, she said the sanctions relief that was offered by the U.S. and its partners could be described as “not significant, but meaningful.”

Increasing Sanctions

In the House, where a new sanctions bill will be considered next week by the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) called repeatedly for “pedal to the metal” sanctions. He argued that the U.S. could sanction Iran while negotiating, but oddly cited the U.S. sanctions approach to Germany during World War I that presaged the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. “In 1918, we negotiated with the Kaiser’s Germany while not only sanctioning but also waging all-out war.”  

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stressed that there must be some point where the U.S. abandons diplomacy, a point echoed by many others who appeared concerned that talks could be used as a delaying tactic for Iran to advance its nuclear program.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) questioned the administration’s stance that all options remain on the table, and asked if the United States would be willing to attack Iran with nuclear weapons or to execute an Iraq-style ground invasion.  Amb. Sherman demurred. However, under the current U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the United States would consider a first-strike nuclear attack on nations that are not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or are in violation of its terms.

Humanitarian Blockage

Secretary Cohen attempted to defend the sanctions from criticism that they are blocking humanitarian goods, including food and medicine, from reaching the Iranian people despite exemptions for those goods.  Cohen placed sole blame on Iran’s government for medical shortages in the country.  His statement did not acknowledge criticism from experts at the Wilson Center and Atlantic Council that have found that sanctions on all of Iran’s international banks, and their chilling effect on third party banks, are a major source of medical shortages in Iran. 

According to Cohen, “[w]hatever shortages may exist, and whatever reluctance foreign banks may have to process transactions, the root cause is not our sanctions programs, it is the actions of the Iranian government.” Cohen said that the U.S. has a sanctions exemption for medicine, but due to Iranian subterfuge on its financial transactions, it is “entirely understandable that foreign banks that maintain relationships with Iranian banks may nonetheless be wary about facilitating otherwise permissible transactions.”   Cohen thus appeared aware that the banking channel for humanitarian transactions are disrupted by sanctions, but proposed no changes to ensure that humanitarian goods can reach Iran.


Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) conveyed his support for the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) a group, which is widely opposed by Iranians and viewed by human rights organizations as a cult. The group has been actively lobbying the House to pressure the administration to move MEK members back to the group’s paramilitary base at Camp Ashraf, Iraq.  Late last year, as part of what was widely viewed as a deal with the State Department to get the group removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, the MEK agreed to leave the base and relocate to Camp Liberty, also in Iraq, where they would then work with the UN to repatriate members in third countries. In a heated exchange with Rep. Rohrabacher, who called for the U.S. to support the MEK, Amb. Sherman expressed her concern that the people at Camp Liberty were being exploited by the MEK’s leadership. “There are opportunities for the people of Camp Liberty to resettle.  There have been offers made by countries like Albania to take many of them,” she said.  “And to be very frank Congressman, the leadership of the MEK, both in Camp Liberty and in Paris, have kept the people of Camp Liberty from knowing what their options are.  And I so care about their lives, and the threat to their lives in the camp, that I hope the leadership of the MEK will allow them to know their options.” 

This follows on the heels of testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry in April indicating that MEK members in Camp Liberty had ceased participating in interviews with officials to determine where best to relocate them. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented human rights abuses inflicted by MEK leadership against members who questioned their authority or sought to leave the camps.




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