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June 23, 2014

Iran Diplomacy Debated by House Armed Services Committee

Washington, June 19—Members of the House Armed Services Committee were split regarding nuclear talks underway with Iran at a hearing convened this past Thursday.

The divide was evident in the opening remarks made by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Howard McKeon (R-CA), who said he was skeptical about the efficacy of talking with Iran about its nuclear program when many other areas of disagreement remain between the US and Iran.

“We know that the nuclear program is but one facet of Iran’s overall grand strategy, which includes its sponsorship of terrorism, the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, and other conventional military capabilities that continue to threaten the region and beyond,” McKeon said. “ Yet, none of these issues appear to be within scope of a comprehensive deal.”

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) rejected the idea that a nuclear deal can only occur if all other issues of disagreement are addressed. He pointed out that Iran will remain a challenge for US foreign policy, but noted that if “we can take the nuclear piece of it off the table,” the United States would be far better off.

Smith said that no deal can be perfect, but that “there are things that we can do that will significantly take down their enrichment, that will put in place a coercive inspections regime that will give us confidence that they’re not building secret facilities.”

Smith also criticized the way that some have characterized the debate. “Everybody says that Iran is hell-bent to get a nuclear weapon… And that simply isn’t true,” he said. “And the reason I know that’s not true is because back in 2005, I was told that Iran was six months from having a bomb. They have chosen not to build one.”

The committee heard testimony from William Tobey, former nuclear security official, Michael Singh, former NSC official, and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, former Undersecretary of State. All three were in broad agreement that strict verification measures, while not guaranteeing completely that Iran will not pursue further nuclear development, will give the international community the necessary tools to detect and prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

They also agreed that the US should be reluctant to add other issues to the negotiations, although the reasoning of each differed. Pickering, referring to the situation in Iraq as an example, expected that Iran would take measures to protect its interests in Iraq independent of coordination with the US, saying “My own view is that Iran has to look out for its own interests in Iraq, and it’s not up to the U.S….to make deals with them, particularly not at the expense of the issue we’re here to discuss today, the nuclear deal.”
Ambassador Pickering was the most optimistic about the potential gains from a nuclear deal. “The opportunity with Iran represents one of the most significant for American diplomacy in this century,” he said.

“The potential strategic gains for the US and the region are real,” said Pickering, emphasizing that a deal would enhance American and regional security and provide necessary verification to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is strictly civilian in nature.

However, Pickering also warned about the danger of not getting a deal. “The consequences of failure will impact our alliances in the region, especially with respect to Israel and our energy interests.”

Several members of the committee were extremely skeptical of the negotiations, and criticized the current Iran policy. Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) stated “Mr. Chairman, I believe that this administration is placing us all on a trajectory where Iran gains nuclear weapons capability and sets the entire world walking in the shadow of nuclear terrorism.” Franks also questioned whether Iran had made a decision to build a nuclear weapon, doubting the veracity of evidence to the contrary.

“If Mr. Franks doesn’t really know, he should ask General Clapper,” Pickering responded, “because it’s important that he understand why General Clapper agrees with high confidence that Iran has not made a decision to go for a nuclear weapon.”

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