The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday relentlessly grilled witnesses on the need for new sanctions against Iran, even as the White House works to convince the Senate to delay implementing a new set of embargoes.
The hearing — titled “Examining Nuclear Negotiations: Iran After Rouhani’s First 100 Days” — was designed to delve into the current state of play with Iran after the inauguration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in August. Republicans and Democrats alike charged that little had changed since then, attacking the Obama administration for the increased outreach between Washington and Tehran in the weeks since Rouhani took office.
“Only when the Iranian regime is forced to decide between economic collapse or its rush to develop its nuclear weapons capability do we have a chance to avoid that terrible outcome,” Foreign Affairs chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said in his opening statement.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka and Foundation for the Defense of Democracy executive director Mark Dubowitz were on exactly on the same page as Royce throughout the hearing. “We are negotiating with people that we like,” Dubowitz said at one point about the current talks to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, “because we are negotiating with ourselves.” Pletka also said in her opening statement accused the administration of constantly moving the goal posts, ignoring Congressional sanctions in favor of offer better and better deals towards Iran. Both organizations have been leading advocates for ever harsher penalties against Iran and the use of military force sooner rather than later.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl, in contrast, warned the legislators against the escalations of sanctions on Iran at this point, saying that they could cause the current efforts at diplomacy to go “careening off the cliff.” He also cautioned against attempting to move towards maximal positions against Tehran on the basis that such maneuvering would all too likely tank any possible deal. “We have to negotiate with the enemies we have, not the enemies we want,” Kahl said.
The hearing itself came after last weekend’s negotiations between the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia — and Iran in Geneva ended without an agreed upon deal. While details have not been released, the framework as reported would have allowed for some limited relief of sanctions in exchange for a delay in Iran’s advancing its nuclear program, buying time for a final agreement between the parties.
As a result of the perceived failure in Switzerland, the assembled congressmen with few exceptions pressed the witnesses on just why an interim deal was even necessary, let alone the terms that have been reported in the media. The vast majority also insisted that not only should existing sanctions not be rolled back before the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, but new sanctions were an absolute must.
That thinking was exemplified early on in the hearing, when Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) — who himself takes a more hawkish position on Iran — made clear that “while we must have a genuine openness to a diplomatic process that resolves all outstanding issues,” the Senate should still pass the House’s Iran legislation. Engel did acknowledge that many of the details of the framework that was under discussion have yet to be revealed, making denunciations of any deal premature. “Let’s be clear, none of us were at the negotiating table,” he cautioned his colleagues. “So I think it would be wise for us to speak with some degree of caution until all the facts are known.”
Engel’s warning did not seem to be particularly well received among his colleagues, who relentlessly attacked the Obama administration for being too willing and eager to reach a deal on Iran. “Viva [sic] la France,” Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) repeatedly said, in response to reports that France’s foreign minister Fabius Laurent helped shift the P5+1’s position towards a tougher stance. Dubowitz and members of Congress also often called France the “guardian of non-proliferation,” referencing a piece in Le Monde from Monday.
Kahl did his best to push back on incorrect assumptions both about the proposed deal and the facts surrounding the nuclear issue before having to leave prior to the hearing’s end. Earlier today, Israel claimed that the sanctions relief on the table had the potential of being worth up to $40 billion, providing Tehran an escape from approximately 40 percent of the sanctions value. Royce in his opening statement inflated that number up to $50 billion. The actual number, Kahl told the panel, was closer to $6 billion, and was designed to be reversible after the interim period should Iran prove to be unwilling to comply with the demands the West had put forward.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the negotiations in Geneva, is due to brief the Senate Banking Committee on the talks on Wednesday afternoon. His goal: keep committee chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) from taking up the new sanctions legislation currently on hold in his committee. Before the last round of talks began, the administration managed to hold Johnson off, but he has been noncommittal in public statements about whether he will continue to delay implementation. Johnson’s counterpart in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) seems to have no such qualms, telling ABC’s This Week on Sunday that the U.S. should proceed forward with examining new sanctions as planned.
In upping the pressure on Congress to delay new sanctions, the White House on Tuesday took its strongest tone yet. “The American people do not want a march to war,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, describing the result of new embargo legislation in stark terms. “Again, this is not about being for or against sanctions,” Carney continued. “But this is a decision to support diplomacy and possible peaceful resolution to this issue.”
The White House will be fighting against the influence of outside groups lobbying Congress in their own right as well as they try to get the Senate to delay their legislation. Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman on Monday announced that the temporary pause in urging new sanctions was null and void after Geneva ended with no deal. The New York Times likewise on Wednesday reports that “if a diplomatic breakthrough is achieved, Aipac is ready to mount an aggressive campaign to stop it, according to one person familiar with its thinking.”