US President Joe Biden before speaking during a roundtable discussion on public safety at the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, February 28, 2024

US Senators Urge Biden To Enforce Iran Sanctions During Hearing

Thursday, 02/29/2024

The US Senate committee on foreign relations heard Wednesday that the only way to stop Iran’s malign activities is to enforce crippling sanctions already imposed on its ruling regime.

“We have to enforce our sanctions, particularly on the energy sector,” said Senator Ben Cardin (D-M), chairman of the influential committee. “And I think there is going to be consensus in this committee to strengthen those tools.”

The Senate hearing Wednesday was the latest in a series of Congressional attempts to deal with Iran’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the Middle East, propping up an array of armed groups to destabilize the region and advance the regime’s interest at the expense of almost everybody else, including ordinary Iranians.

“Iran will find ways to finance its proxies to the detriment of its own people,” Senator Cardin said in his concluding remarks of the hearing. “The first priority of their budget is these terrorist activities.”

The Iranian regime is the main sponsor of Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen's Houthis, and several armed groups in Syria and Iraq, all of which rely on Iran’s funds, weapons and training. The groups are bound by material interest and fulfilling Tehran's policy of forcing the US military out of the Middle East.

The Biden administration should announce that they make no distinction between Iran and its proxies,” former special representative for Iran Brian Hook told the committee, “anything that a proxy does, we will attribute agency to the Iranian regime and they will be held accountable as if it was a direct attack.”

President Joe Biden’s policy on Iran was a major theme in the hearing. Most participants criticized Biden and his team for “not doing enough” to stop or “deter” Iran. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), ranking member of the foreign relations Committee, explained how and why, in his view, things have gone wrong.

“At the beginning of the Biden Administration, the president’s Iran policy was abundantly clear and that was an attempt to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal regardless of the cost,” he said. “The administration chose engagement and appeasement over containment and isolation… Three years later, Iran is more emboldened and empowered than before, and the Middle East is in turmoil.”

Suzanne Meloney, Director of Foreign Policy at the Brooking Institution –and the only other witness alongside Hook– stressed the need for a change in approach.

“There was a period in time in which negotiations with Iran proved that they could be fruitful in terms of getting concessions on real security risks that we have with respect to the regime,” Meloney said.. “I think that time is now firmly over. The current leadership within Iran has no interest in making concessions to the United States.”

Iranian officials have never hidden their intention to “rid” the Middle East of American forces. In the past few years, they have pressed on with their missile program and have made advanced drones that Russia uses against Ukraine.

“I cannot overstate how bad policy has allowed Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea to move from being transactional partners to strategic allies with each other,” Senator Risch said, “This is a failure of American policy that will have consequences for years to come.”

Curiously, no official from the Biden administration was present at the public hearing. Unnamed officials had agreed to take part in a confidential meeting only – which was held at the subcommittee level Wednesday, according to Senator Cardin.

It’s unclear why the administration preferred not to have any representation at the Senate hearing. One reason could be the ongoing investigation about former Iran envoy Robert Malley, whose security clearance was taken away last year for alleged mishandling of classified documents.

Malley was a key figure in framing Biden’s policy on Iran (and the Middle East more generally). Out of public sight since June 2023, his name keeps surfacing whenever Iran and Biden’s Iran policy is discussed. So it did in the Senate hearing Wednesday.

Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) claimed Malley was the one who “stopped enforcing [Iran] sanctions wholeheartedly” in the hope that the regime would agree to limit its nuclear activities as part of an unwritten agreement. He forced the administration to “look the other way,” so that Iran could sell oil to China, Hagerty said. “It’s a disgrace.” 

The alternative –most of those present at the hearing seemed to agree– would be ‘tightening the screw’.

“My view on the Iranian regime is that you’re more likely to get the deal you want with crippling sanctions,” Hook said. “If you create a positive environment Iran is going to play cat and mouse with you as long as you let them.”

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