The new Democratic-controlled Congress is exploring ways to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, while at the same time exerting pressure on the Bush administration to open a diplomatic dialogue with Tehran.
In its first meeting since Democrats took control of the US House of Representatives, the International Relations Committee held a hearing January 11 called "Next Steps in the Iran Crisis." The new chairman of the committee, Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, characterized the Iran nuclear issue as "among the most weighty foreign-policy problems we face." He went on to assert that the Bush administration's unwillingness to engage directly with Iran has only allowed Tehran more time to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"I am frankly baffled by the debate over whether or not we should engage in dialogue with Iran. Dialogue does not mean defeat. I am passionately committed to dialogue with those with whom we disagree," Lantos said.
Lantos' position was supported by one of the witnesses who testified at the hearing, Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration. Pickering told the committee that the United States should provide a comprehensive package of incentives and disincentives for Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program, rather than the piecemeal approach the Bush administration has so far attempted.
The incentives, Pickering said, should include help with, and strong oversight of Iran's civilian nuclear power program, regional security guarantees, and the possibility of removing sanctions. Potential punishment for non-cooperation would involve a series of escalating international sanctions, culminating in a ban on trade in oil and gas with Iran. Pickering admitted his approach might not work, but insisted it was likely the best available option. "The alternative, the use of force, is so deficient in promise, that it would seem best to try diplomacy first, and while there is still time," he told the committee.
A Democratic member of the committee, Brad Sherman of California, said the United States should consider making geopolitical concessions to Russia in return for stronger Russian support on the Iranian nuclear issue.
"We can beg or lecture, but that hasn't worked. Bargaining probably would, because Russia cares enormously about issues in its own region Chechnya, Abkhazia, the route of Caspian oil pipelines, the pipeline situation with Belarus and Ukraine, and the treatment of Russian-speaking people in Moldova, Latvia and Estonia," Sherman said. "The national security of the United States depends on our ability to gain Russian support on the Iran issue, in return for reasonable accommodations on issues in Russia's region."
Sherman, who is also the chair of the subcommittee on international terrorism and nonproliferation, cited several obstacles hampering closer US-Russian cooperation on Iran. "The State Department is strongly prejudiced against linking Russian policy on Iran with our policy on issues in Russia's region. They have a bureau on Moldova, they have a bureau on Abkhazia, and those bureaucrats will scream loudly if their pet issue is sacrificed for a greater national security concern," Sherman said.
"Secondly, there are those in the administration with such a high estimate of our national power that they believe we can achieve all objectives simultaneously and not prioritize. And finally, many foreign policy experts grew up in the Soviet era, strategizing how to encircle and weaken Russia, and, unfortunately, old habits die hard," he added.
The top Republican on the committee, Ileana Ros Lehtinen of Florida, opposed any effort to engage Iran, saying that it would legitimize the "extremist regime" in Tehran, "embolden our enemies" and allow Iran more time to develop nuclear weapons. She said she favored a stronger international sanctions regime.
She was backed up by James Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who instead proposed a more aggressive effort to non-violently overthrow the government in Tehran. In addition, the programming of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Iranian services should be significantly enhanced, Woolsey said.
"Our current broadcasting does not inform Iranians about what is happening in Iran, as RFE and RL did about matters in the [Soviet] bloc. Privately-financed Farsi broadcasts from the United States follow the RFE/RL model to some extent, but exist on a shoestring," he said. Negotiations would not work with Iran because of the "theocratic-totalitarian nature of the current regime," Woolsey added.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee voiced support for sanctioning the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) because of its dealings with Iran. CNOOC and Iran in December announced a $16-billion deal to develop Iran's Northern Pars gas field. The deal appears to violate a US law that imposes sanctions against companies that invest more than $20 million in Iran's oil and gas industry.
Both Lantos and Ros Lehtinen said they intended to force the Bush administration to enforce the Iran Freedom Support Act, which they said has so far not been a high priority for the administration. "The first test case [of the Act] will come when and if China's state oil company begins to implement the outrageous $16-billion Memorandum of Understanding it recently signed," Lantos said. "I can assure you that this committee will hold the administration's feet to the fire, demanding biting sanctions."
Ros Lehtinen echoed Lantos' threat. "If the Chinese company is found to be in violation of the Iran Freedom Support Act, my colleagues in Congress and I will seek to ensure that this Chinese entity is penalized to the fullest extent of the law," she said.
Ros Lehtinen said she was also concerned about the recent announcement that SKS Ventures of Malaysia had also signed a deal worth $16 billion to develop gas fields in the south of Iran, near the Persian Gulf.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.