Iran in Congress' Sights

By David Swanson

The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs is prepared to follow in Dick Cheney’s footsteps and shoot a friend in the face. I just sat through a hearing on Iran, and there is apparently universal bipartisan agreement in the committee that Iranians feel kindly toward Americans and welcome them as friends, and that Iranians should be brutally punished by the toughest economic sanctions possible. This simple truth went unstated: sanctions kill.

Who remembers this exchange on your television a decade back?

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

–60 Minutes (5/12/96)

The absurd notion that Iran constitutes a threat to the United States was asserted in the opening breath out of Chairman Tom Lantos’s mouth and never questioned by a single speaker through the hearing. Not a single speaker questioned the need to get tough on Iran in one way or another. Not a single speaker questioned the idea that a nation years away from possessing nuclear weapons and open to negotiating about them is a threat to the world’s hugest nuclear power. Not a single speaker questioned assertions made during the hearing to the effect that Iran is supplying Iraqis with explosives. Not a single speaker questioned US preparations for war on Iran. And not one voice raised any concern over what sanctions would do to the Iranian people.

Some Republicans pushed for other routes to regime change, including funding the MEK or other groups in Iran. One Republican pushed for going after Saudi Arabia too. Some Democrats questioned failures to negotiate in the past. But most Democrats questioned failures to impose strict enough sanctions now.

Lantos began by announcing a new bill he is introducing to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. His bill, he said, would sanction oil companies that sell to Iran, and would label Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist force.” Lantos also said he would work with Congressman Barney Frank (Dem., Mass.) to divest funds from Iran. Ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said she supported the proposal.

As Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns waited to testify, each Congress Member spoke briefly. Republicans tended to demonize President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and refer to Iran as “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism,” even arguing against negotiations on the grounds that you must not negotiate with terrorists guilty of “blatant anti-Americanism.” That phrase was used more than once.

Burns would end up saying that the United States would not negotiate on the nuclear question unless Iran stopped enriching uranium, but also saying that the US and Britain have both sent messages through Switzerland asking Iran to stop giving the assistance to Iraqis that the US has been unable to prove Iran is actually giving. And the United States is meeting with Iranians and Syrians in the coming days as part of a meeting with Iraqis.

Democrat Brad Sherman said he wanted to leave “the military option” on the table but try tougher sanctions first. But Democrat Robert Wexler asked Burns the following question: In 2003 the Iranians offered to stop enrichment, to back a two-state solution, and to not fund Hezbollah, and we didn’t negotiate. Now they offer nothing and we negotiate. Why? (Burns wouldn’t get a chance to answer until every member in the room had spoken.)

Republican Dana Rohrabacher pointed out that most of the resistance in Iraq comes from Sunnis with the support of Saudi Arabia. He proposed targeting them as well as the Iranians.

Democrat Diane Watson made the strongest statement against war, and it was this: “I would hope that the military option would be at the bottom of the list and maybe not on the list at all.” Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (Dem., Calif.) passed up her chance to speak.

When Burns got to speak, 50-minutes into the hearing, he said he had submitted longer written testimony to Lantos but would summarize. He listed four goals for the Middle East:

1-Democratic Iraq
2-Democratic Lebanon
3-Israeli-Palestinian peace
4-Blocking Iraq’s nuclear ambitions and regional ambitions

The “regional ambitions” were never discussed.

Working off the same talking points as some of the Republican Congress Members, Burns denounced Iran’s “confrontational ideology and blatant anti-Americanism.” He said that Iran had defied the UN and the IAEA and used rhetoric unheard “since the fascist regimes of the 1930s.” And, Iran, he said, has refused to suspend enrichment of uranium, which is the United States’ condition for negotiating.

Ignoring the question about Iran’s 2003 offer and the US refusal, Burns claimed that Iran had refused a US offer to negotiate and was continuing to do so. Burns added as a footnote that the United States is requiring Iraq to suspend enrichment as a condition of negotiating.

As we saw in the buildup to the Iraq War, Burns said the United States is trying to pass a second resolution through the United Nations with tougher sanctions against Iran.

Burns cited various specific divestment and sanction efforts against Iran, and the Democrats hammered him later for piecemeal inconsistent work when total sanctions are needed. Burns called Iran the central banker for Middle East terrorism, the funder of Hamas and Hezbollah, and opposing peace between Israel and Palestine. Burns claimed Iran was supporting Iraq with weapons, but offered no proof, and nobody asked for any.

Lantos set the tone for the post-remarks questioning by claiming that the U.S. Trade Representative is pushing a “free-trade” deal with Malaysia even as that nation invests $16 billion in Iran. Burns evaded the question but promised that a second UN resolution would make the sanctions “hurt.”

Lantos asserted some degree of Congressional power: “When Congress passes legislation with overwhelming bipartisan majorities,” he said, “and the administration waives the sanctions passed, we have to take away the waiver authority of the administration.” And that’s what Lantos said his new bill will do.

Burns asserted that he supports the existing law, a comment that’s actually informative coming from a member of the Bush administration.

Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey then broke things up a bit by pushing a faulty translation of remarks by Ahmadinejad. Iran’s president famously advocated eliminating Israel, except that in the original he didn’t – he advocated eliminating its current government. Smith is or pretends to be ignorant of this fact, and proposed treating the remark as a violation of the Genocide Convention, since Ahmadinejad was “talking about the elimination of an entire people.”

Burns did not correct the error, but carefully avoided agreeing with it and changed the subject to that of cultural exchanges. He said the U.S. wrestling team had been given a “rapturous welcome” in Iran.

Asked about the UN Human Rights Council, Burns claimed the U.S. would not seek a seat on it, since it had discredited itself last year by criticizing Israel.

When Democrat Gary Ackerman got a chance to ask Burns a question, he picked up on the unanswered question as to why the Bush administration had turned down Iran’s 2003 offer to negotiate. Burns claimed he wasn’t at the State Department at that time and so couldn’t answer.

Ackerman asked if, out of curiosity, Burns had in recent days asked any of his colleagues about it by any chance.

Burns hemmed and hawed and said that public comments by Secretary of State Rice and others suggest that they were unsure it was a legitimate offer.

Ackerman asked how they could be sure now and why they had to let four years pass to become sure.

Burns evaded the question and then said that now they can verify whether Iran has ceased enriching uranium.

Ackerman asked why they couldn’t have done the same four years ago.

Burns effectively said he didn’t want to talk about it.

Congressman Rohrabacher, after pushing for backing the MEK, asked again why there was no focus on the Saudis.

Burns made a halfhearted attempt to claim that there was no proof Saudi Arabia was involved with the Sunni resistance in Iraq, and then simply asserted: “We would never accuse our friends the Saudis of aiding and abetting violence in Iraq.”

But Rohrabacher actually had some idea what he was talking about and pointed out that there is a website with hundreds of names on it identifying Saudi martyrs who have died in Iraq fighting the Americans, and that there is clearly money flowing from Saudi Arabia to the Iraqi fighters. Rohrabacher turned to Lantos and proposed an investigation. Lantos thanked him but didn’t indicate whether he liked the idea.

Then the hearing returned to being dominated by Democrats pushing for tougher sanctions. Sherman wanted sanctions against the sale of refined petroleum products to Iran. Burns said the State Department was not seeking that, and didn’t say why.

When Lynn Woolsey, a leader of efforts to end the Iraq war in Congress, finally spoke, she asked how the Iranian people’s affection for America would be affected by bombing them or trying to overthrow their government. Burns replied that those were not US goals. Woolsey did not ask about how sanctions would impact Iranians.

“Most Iranians have a positive attitude toward the US,” Burns said, “and we try of course to exploit that.”

I append Congressman Tom Lantos’ opening remarks as Emailed by his office. There’s a phone number included for those who have comments:

Verbatim, as delivered March 6, 2007 Contact: Lynne Weil, 202-225-5021

Statement of Chairman Tom Lantos at Full Committee Hearing, “The Iranian Challenge”

For decades to come, the world’s preeminent historians will analyze the Iraq War and its manifold impact. But one impact is already clear: when dealing with a looming threat to international peace and security, Congress will insist that all – and I mean all – diplomatic and economic remedies be pursued before military action is undertaken.

We are far from having exhausted all diplomatic and economic options for stopping Tehran’s headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons. Talk of military intervention is unwise and unsupported by Congress and the American people.

I am very pleased that the Administration has recently reversed course, and will join Iran and Syria for discussions on stability in Iraq. Perhaps this diplomatic contact with Iran might pave the way for a broader dialogue with Tehran designed to bridge the gulf between our two nations.

But diplomacy with Iran does not stand a chance unless it is backed by strong international sanctions against the regime in Tehran. Iran’s theocracy must understand that it cannot pursue a nuclear weapons program without sacrificing the political and economic future of the Iranian people.

That is why this week I am introducing the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007. The objective of my legislation is two-fold: To prevent Iran from securing nuclear arms and the means to produce them. And to ensure that we achieve this goal in a peaceful manner.

My legislation will increase exponentially the economic pressure on Iran, and empower our diplomatic efforts by strengthening the Iran Sanctions Act. It will put an end to the Administration’s ability to waive sanctions against foreign companies that invest in Iran’s energy industry.

Until now, abusing its waiver authority and other flexibility in the law, the Executive Branch has never sanctioned any foreign oil company which invested in Iran. Those halcyon days for the oil industry are over.

If Dutch Shell moves forward with its proposed $10 billion deal with Iran, it will be sanctioned. If Malaysia moves forward with a similar deal, it too will be sanctioned. The same treatment will be accorded to China and India should they finalize deals with Iran.

The corporate barons running giant oil companies – who have cravenly turned a blind eye to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons – have come to assume that the Iran Sanctions Act will never be implemented. This charade will now come to a long overdue end.

My legislation goes beyond the waiver issue. If a nation aids Iran’s nuclear program, it will not be able to have a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.

Import sanctions will be re-imposed on all Iranian exports to the United States. The Clinton Administration lifted sanctions on Iranian carpets and other exports in an effort to encourage Tehran to undertake a dialogue. It is self-evident that this diplomatic breakthrough has not occurred, and the favor offered Iran will now be revoked.

My legislation also calls on the President to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group. The Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force train terrorists throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq and in Lebanon. The Revolutionary Guard, which is a major base of support for Ahmadinejad, owns huge economic enterprises in Iran. Foreign banks will think twice about dealing with these enterprises once the Guard is declared a terrorist organization.

All of these actions will deprive Iran of the funds that currently support and sustain its nuclear program.

I will also join with our colleague Barney Frank, the Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, in introducing legislation to limit pension fund investment in foreign companies that pour money into Iran’s energy industry. A variety of means will be used for this purpose from “name and shame” for private funds to mandating divestment for public funds.

I want to acknowledge with pleasure Ranking Member Ros-Lehtinen’s leadership on the Iran divestment issue and other Iran sanctions legislation, and I fully anticipate that key elements of her proposals will be incorporated in our bipartisan bill.

The reason for this all-encompassing approach — and for its urgency — is that we have so little time. Iran is forging ahead with its nuclear program, in blatant defiance of the unanimous will of the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Before it is too late, we must try to persuade others to join us in increasing the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran and, where necessary, we must give them incentives to do so.

I now turn to my friend and colleague, the esteemed ranking member of this committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for any comment she might choose to make.

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