Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Blog

By Yasmine Taeb & Frank Matt

Capitol BuildingOn Friday October 14th, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held part two of a series of hearings entitled, “Iran and Syria: Next Steps.” The hearings were followed by the introduction of H.R. 2105, titled the “Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Reform and Modernization Act of 2011” (INKSA). Statements and questions from committee members reveal that Congress is growing increasingly hawkish on Iran, especially in response to accusations of a recent Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador on U.S. soil. Wendy R. Sherman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and David S. Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, both testified before the committee. Both witnesses were berated by the committee members for what the committee considered to be insufficient results from American attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran.

The rhetoric from the Republican committee members in particular was frighteningly hawkish and fatalistic. Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH), Chair of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee, led the charge in calling for “closing the door on all engagement with Iran” and describing any hope of a nuclear bargain with Iran as a “dangerous fantasy.” Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) grew angry with Under Secretary Sherman when she refused to say that the State Department favored regime change in Iran. Sherman instead stated that the U.S. should simply “support the aspirations of the Iranian people.”

Both inside the hearing room and protesting outside were representatives of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, or the MEK. Rep. Rohrabacher, as well as several other conservative committee members, acknowledged the MEK protesters and suggested that they be supported as a viable opposition to the Iranian regime. In fact, earlier in the summer, Rohrabacher held a hearing to bring attention to the human rights conditions of the members of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, but committee members used the opportunity to promote the MEK, a group currently listed by the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and criticized by international human rights groups, and the Green Movement in Iran as harboring cultish tactics and advocating a violent overthrow of the Iranian regime. While Under Secretary Sherman’s stance on regime change was criticized as nebulous by the likes of Congressmen Chabot and Rohrabacher, she should be applauded for her thoughtful and nuanced position.

The alleged Iranian terror plot comes at a rather opportune time for Congress.  Last week, the Senate Banking Committee responded to the plot by considering additional sanctions against Iran, and Ros-Lehtinen’s hearing on the Emerging Threats in the Western Hemisphere quickly devolved into a discussion on Iran’s influence and activities in the Western Hemisphere. Ros-Lehtinen initially introduced the “Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011” Sanctions bill in May, which currently has 321 co-sponsors, and coincided with AIPAC’s annual conference and lobby day. Shortly after news of the alleged Iran plot surfaced, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to send to President Obama to “reaffirm the need for every relevant branch of the United States government to immediately and swiftly begin the work required to cripple Iran’s Central Bank, Bank Markazi Jomhouri Islami Iran, and collapse the value of the Iranian currency.” Rep. Duncan (R-SC) introduced a resolution last week recognizing “Iran’s activity in the Western Hemisphere” and urging the Administration to include the Western Hemisphere in the Administration’s 2012 National Strategy for Counterterrorism’s Area of Focus while Sen. Kirk, appearing on a local Chicago radio show, said it’s okay to “take food out of the mouths” of innocent Iranians and impose broad-based economic sanctions on Iran.    

The frustration in Congress over our seeming inability to change Iran’s behavior is understandable. Yet this frustration should not lead to the U.S taking ill-conceived steps that will significantly hinder our ability to enforce a policy of engagement with Tehran.  Iran’s alleged assassination attempt, if true, was brazen, but it was also ill-conceived and sloppy, and has led many scholars of Iran to doubt its connection to the regime in Tehran. If the U.S. means to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, our approach cannot mirror our failed policies in Iraq. Supporting an opposition group with no support or legitimacy inside of Iran which will likely have catastrophic effects.    

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