Intel insights

Intelligence Committee members weigh in on preventing Iranian breakout after Middle East trip

‘I think you can do negotiations and at the same time, communicate firmly and clearly to Iran that both the United States and Israel together would actively consider military actions’ Rep. Mike Turner said

Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Rep Mike Turner, R-OH, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Friday Aug. 12, 2022.

Following a delegation to Israel, Jordan and Egypt last week, members of the House Intelligence Committee remain divided on the best path forward to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon.

With Iran moving closer to weapons-grade enrichment and a revived nuclear deal remaining unlikely, Republicans on the trip told JI that they believe the Biden administration needs to send a stronger deterrent message to Tehran. Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL) said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed a similar message: that only a “threat of military action” will deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

“I don’t believe that [administration officials] have given any signal or indication to Iran that there would be consequences for becoming a nuclear state,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) said. “I think you can do negotiations and at the same time, communicate firmly and clearly to Iran that both the United States and Israel together would actively consider military actions to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state.”

Turner offered as an example President Joe Biden’s “boisterous, strong consequence statements to China with respect to Taiwan” — a sentiment Turner claimed has been lacking in the president’s rhetoric toward Iran.

Waltz added that the U.S. should also make clear that “we won’t stand in the way of Israel” and demonstrate to Iran “through a variety of means that our military capabilities are such that we could indeed severely damage their program.”

Administration officials have said that the U.S. will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and that the administration has taken “no option off the table” to prevent that.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) suggested that conditions against Iran’s nuclear weaponization could be incorporated into emerging dialogues between Iran and U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Bera stopped in Abu Dhabi ahead of the delegation’s trip.

“I would not [establish dialogue] without conditions,” Bera said. “I would urge our friends in Saudi Arabia, our friends in the Emirates to make a non-nuclear Iran part of those conditions, if they’re going to do commerce, or if there’s going to be some normalization.”

“Don’t just do it because you’re scared because missiles hit Saudi Aramco and missiles hit Abu Dhabi,” he continued, referring to the 2019 strike at the Saudi-owned oil facility. “I understand their concerns, but if you’re going to engage diplomatically with Iran, I think that’s one path.”

Saudi and Emirati leaders have expressed concern with what they saw as a failure by the U.S. to respond to these attacks by Iranian-backed actors in Yemen.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), a former CIA officer, said the U.S. must engage with partners in Europe and the Middle East “to try to figure out what it is that can be done” to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear breakout.

The group’s trip coincided with moves by the Arab League toward readmitting Syria, more than a decade after the nation was expelled early in what has become a protracted civil war. Turner explained that “everyone in the region is very concerned” that leaving “any void or gaps” could allow for further Iranian encroachment.

Waltz said that Jordanian King Abdullah II expressed a “strong desire for some conditionality, yet having to weigh that with how quickly the Emiratis and Saudis are moving” toward readmitting Syria, “and the need in general, given how things have settled in Syria, to probably recognize it’s in their best interest to be present and to pull — to the extent they can — [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad back into the Arab fold.”

Waltz said that the Jordanian leadership highlighted in particular the drug trade flowing from Syria into Jordan as a key area for potential conditions.

Bera said that the group emphasized to Arab leaders that, if they are going to take steps toward normalizing relations with Syria, they should “do it with certain conditions,” including cracking down on Iranian proxy groups.

“Some of what the Arab nations are thinking about, and the Gulf states are thinking about is that, ‘The Iranians are already there, we ought to be there. We want to be a counterweight to them,’” Bera explained. “That isn’t necessarily something that we’d disagree with, but just do it with conditions.”

Spanberger said that the U.S. “must engage with our allies in the region… about their intentions, about the costs and benefits of them welcoming Syria — or not — back into the fold.”

“The place where we can utilize our influence as a country is to make clear what expectations should be set for the behavior of a country like Syria,” she continued.

“The challenge,” Spanberger said, is in making clear the U.S.’ concerns about the “laundry list of things that are wrong in Syria and denunciations of what Assad has done” as well as “having really open conversations” about U.S. partners’ approaches to the situation.

Alongside growing Iranian influence, lawmakers said that there was also a significant focus in the group’s conversations with regional leaders on China’s efforts to establish itself as a leader in the region.

Bera said that the U.S. “just [has] to keep reassuring folks that we’re not withdrawing from the region” — describing recent high-level congressional delegations as helpful in this respect — and expressed some skepticism about China’s ability to gain a foothold.

“We’ll watch and see if China really does engage. If they can broker a peace deal with Yemen, great, good for them. If they can keep the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons, great, good for them,” Bera said. “That said, that has never been the Chinese role, and at the end of the day, if folks are looking for security guarantees, it’s not going to be the Chinese, it’s going to be the United States.”

Waltz said he doesn’t “put a lot of weight” on the recent China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, arguing that “China [was] really overplaying the case to create the perception they’ve stepped in as a diplomatic leader,” and that “there’s still plenty of room for the United States.”

The Florida congressman added that he came away with the impression that there is a “rough framework and outline” in place for expanding the Abraham Accords to Saudi Arabia that “could come together,” given the “genuine desire” of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Netanyahu.

Completing such an agreement, he said, will require the United States will to streamline its military sales process, provide “security assurances” to Saudi Arabia and assist, with “parameters,” Saudi Arabia’s nuclear power program.

“The devil’s in the details, obviously, but the broad framework isn’t unachievable,” Waltz said. “If the administration is willing to lead on this and lean into it, I think there’s ways that we could find to get it done.”

Waltz downplayed concerns that assisting a Saudi nuclear power program could contribute to a nuclear arms race in the region, outlining possibilities for a Saudi nuclear program without enrichment, or run by a U.S. company with “safeguards.” He added that Saudi Arabia had deep ties to Pakistan’s nuclear program, and would likely be able to access that technology if it chose to pursue its own nuclear weapons.

Bera added that Emirati leaders communicated a “firm commitment” to the Abraham Accords, “despite what might be going on in Israel, in the West Bank and with the Palestinians.”

The group also met with leaders in the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian security forces. Bera expressed concerns that “Hamas may try to exploit a vacuum in leadership,” particularly if PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 87, were to die in office.

“In the conversations that we had, we urged the Israelis to use caution in the West Bank to try to work with the Palestinian Authority to address security threats and security concerns,” he said.

“We need a Palestinian Authority, or someone that you can actually negotiate with,” he added, reemphasizing the importance of continued U.S. engagement in the region.

Bera said he also spoke to leaders about the conflicts in Yemen and Sudan. In Yemen, Bera expressed hope for at least a partial settlement in south Yemen, but concern about the northern part of the country which lacks a central government.

“You have a bunch of 20-year-olds that all they really have been doing their young adult life is fighting. So you’ve got hardened fighters that are well armed and no prospects of an economy and we’ve seen that picture before,” he said. “And we should just really be thinking about that because you don’t want Yemen to be a launching point for terror attacks in Riyadh or Dubai or Tel Aviv.”

In Sudan, Bera said he’s hopeful for a cease-fire followed by talks that can give the two rival factions a role in a future civilian government. He said he disagreed with calls from Senate colleagues last week for sanctions on those involved with the coup, which he argued would, at this stage, “encourage them to keep fighting.”

“I think the other big thing is, we have to make sure outside agitators don’t get further engaged,” Bera added. “Wagner [the Russian paramilitary group] is already there. We need to make sure the Russians don’t engage, or other outside entities.”

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