Despite divisions, lawmakers say they seek bipartisan path forward on Iran

Two House subcommittees held hearings with expert witnesses on Iran policy this week

Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iranian defence missiles and unmanned air vehicles are displayed an event marking the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, at the Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran, on February 11, 2023.

This week, members of subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight committees, joined by eight expert witnesses from outside the government, discussed and debated current U.S. policy toward Iran and potential paths forward toward a more comprehensive Iran strategy.

The hearings suggested that, even if Republicans and Democrats do not necessarily all agree on the wisdom of either the Trump or Biden administration’s policies on Iran, they have — at minimum — a stated interest in finding a bipartisan path forward.

“It’s not as simple as saying it’s either maximum pressure or fall on our sword diplomacy, and I think we would all benefit from thinking about more bipartisan work on this rather than playing the blame game as to whether it was Biden or Trump or whomever,” Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) said in the hearing of the Oversight subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs on Wednesday. “This is a critical issue that I hope we… can engage in in a meaningful, bipartisan, collaborative way.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, said at his hearing that the U.S. must “[implement] multi-prong[ed] policies targeting Iranian terrorism, missile and drone proliferation, and maximizing support for the efforts of the Iranian people seeking political change and survival.”

“And I know it will be bipartisan that we work together, understanding and recognizing that we are in a conflict we did not choose,” Wilson continued, linking the Iran situation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and global authoritarian efforts to oppose democracy and rule of law.

Proposals mentioned by lawmakers to tackle issues concerning Iran included export controls to address the use of American technology in Iranian drones, stronger sanctions, stronger military deterrence, more military exercises with partners in the region and expanded relations with Saudi Arabia.

“If we don’t bring Saudi Arabia in[to the Abraham Accords], then they’re going to go to China. And then you have the China-Iran-Saudi Arabia problem,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) said. “I know there are lots of talks going on, Saudi Arabia wants maybe an Article 5-like protection — I think we should give that to them if that’s what would get them away from China, away from Iran.”

Moskowitz’s position, referring to the NATO mutual defense pact, is significantly more permissive toward Saudi Arabia than those expressed by some of his Democratic colleagues, who have raised concerns about the scope of Riyadh’s requested conditions for a trilateral deal with the U.S. and Israel.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), a progressive Democrat who has taken a more hawkish line on Iran since the beginning of street protests a year ago, lamented at the Oversight hearing that the administration has not laid out a comprehensive strategy for addressing Iran. At the same time, Porter, who is mounting a Senate bid in California, condemned House Republicans for blocking an amendment she said would have compelled the administration to provide more information to Congress about the status of Iran’s nuclear program.

Expert witnesses at the two hearings pushed for a wide range of policies including a bipartisan select committee on Iran; annual unclassified reports on Iran; restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Iran; lowering the threshold for retaliatory strikes in response to attacks on U.S. personnel and aiming such strikes at the originators of such attacks; ensuring internet access for Iranian dissidents; providing financial support for potential labor strikes by Iranian citizens; pressing European allies to fully designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization; combating efforts to normalize the Syrian regime; and assisting Iranian dissidents seeking to travel to the U.S..

On a broader level, witnesses and lawmakers emphasized the need to both elevate the priority of Iran in U.S. policy discussions, as well as sustained efforts to craft both a bipartisan and global coalition, as has been done regarding Russia and China. 

“What you need is a policy in which Iran believes its options to escape pressure don’t exist,” Norman Roule, the former national intelligence manager for Iran, said, laying out the robust, multilateral sanctions, military pressure and international unity that brought Iran to the table in 2014. 

“If Iran senses that it can outlast us, if it senses that our political divide in the United States can undermine [our deterrence], then it simply waits because its leadership has sat in the same chair since 1979,” Roule continued. “If you’re looking for the solution that brought Iran to the table in 2014, it is not a single deal that provides them with a carrot.”

Roule added that the current situation in Europe and Russia and China’s growing ties with Iran, will make it difficult to recreate the sort of international pressure that existed in 2014.

Suzanne Maloney, the vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, argued, however, that such an approach is not hopeless.

“I would also recommend Congress to think about what the United States has done over the past several years with respect to the challenge from China. It was unimaginable that we would have been able to marshall the pressure that we have, to build the consensus that we have,” she said. “I think that the same can be done with respect to Iran. It’s going to be an uphill climb… It’s really time to put it back front and center on the U.S. policy agenda.”

Many of the witnesses called by Republicans also emphasized the need for both a strong sanctions and military response to Iran.

“The Biden administration is fundamentally misreading what is happening. Iran is not deescalating in the region,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “[Iran] is locking in a stalemate in its favor to buy time, space, breathing room… In addition to the strong multilateral recommendations for sanctions… I would echo one other thing — deterrence by [military strikes], not just deterrence by denial.”

Taleblu said at an FDD panel following the hearing that he saw “great bipartisan support” for a range of actions to counter Iran, such as a hard line on sanctions, nonproliferation and efforts to counter Iranian, Russian and Chinese cooperation. The exception, he added, was on implementing snapback of U.N. sanctions on Iran and the broader politics of the 2016 Iran nuclear deal.

GOP witnesses across both hearings spoke largely with one voice in arguing against the administration’s reported understanding with Iran to limit its nuclear enrichment.

Michael Makovsky, the president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, argued at the Oversight hearing that the administration “ultimately accepts a nuclear Iran, only hoping to postpone it, perhaps at least until after next November” and that the reported understanding “will only slightly slow” Iran’s progress.

Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is also a host of JI’s podcast, alleged at the oversight hearing that the reported understanding broke U.S. law requiring that any nuclear agreement with Iran be submitted for congressional review. 

“We are in a nuclear deal today,” Goldberg said. “They have been issuing waivers tied to the nuclear program of Iran under false pretenses… We need to ask for documents, we need to say ‘Show us what you have been negotiating, show us the communications you’ve had with banks.’”

Victoria Coates, the vice president of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, argued that the significant increases in Iranian oil smuggling, “isn’t bad luck or some product randomly squeaking through the net. It’s a deliberate Biden policy of not enforcing the sanctions that are in place, or rather a shadow lifting of these sanctions.”

Maloney argued at the Foreign Affairs hearing the current understanding could be a useful step, but said it is not a long-term solution.

“Discretion is a key aspect of diplomacy, but while back-channels can facilitate limited problem solving, they cannot provide a platform for managing the profound challenges posed by Iran’s destabilizing policies,” Maloney said. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon “will require a credible policy framework that can withstand public and congressional scrutiny.” 

The prospect of the fall of the Iranian regime was a subject of repeated discussion.

“You cannot keep people under oppression forever. Just as the Soviet Union collapsed, I do believe that the Iranian regime… will collapse by the will of its own people,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) said, arguing for greater support for Iranian protesters and dissidents.

The Iranian people, Iranian-American dissident Masih Alinejad argued, have a “simple demand: whether you like the word or not, they want regime change and they believe that the time has come for us Iranians to get rid of [the] gender apartheid regime.”

The Republican witnesses and lawmakers generally agreed that, even if the funds released from South Korea under the recent hostage deal with Iran, such funding would allow the Iranian government to direct funding elsewhere in its budget toward malign activities.

Wilson called it “wilfully negligent” to claim the deal would benefit humanitarian causes, and said it had effectively put a “bounty on the heads of Americans around the world.”

Some Democrats pushed back against critique of the recent agreement.

At the Oversight hearing, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-CA), the subcommittee ranking member, accused colleagues of “trying to block or prejudge diplomacy regardless of its merits, to secure political points,” and insinuated that “the timing of this hearing” could “undermine the efforts” to secure the release of the Americans who remain inside Iran. 

Garcia argued that “history and precedent show that the only time we’ve been able to affect Iran’s regime actions is with diplomacy” and that the Trump administration sanctions had “made us less safe than ever.”

Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center called as a witness by Oversight Democrats, said that “there doesn’t seem to be” a way to end Iran’s “despicable practice” of hostage-taking.

 “This is not ransom, this is not appeasement. Indeed, one could argue that these funds were frozen illegally,” Slavin added, regarding the released funds.

During the Foreign Affairs hearing, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), the subcommittee’s ranking member, argued for the merits of the hostage deal but said other steps are also necessary.

“On the surface, I understand the concerns about the $6 billion. It is my hope, it is my expectation, that this is a baby step, a carrot if you will, to reduce this behavior, provide an incentive to modify behavior going forward,” Phillips said. “It’s also clear that diplomacy alone will not achieve our objectives. The U.S. must pair diplomatic engagement with very tough sanctions enforcement, international accountability and very robust military deterrence.”

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