House Committee Weighs Shift in Iran Policy

WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of Congress bickered Thursday over the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and whether the Trump administration is prepared to back up its tough talk of putting Iran “on notice,” given its close ties to Russia.

Republicans and some of the witnesses who testified at Thursday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee seemed hopeful that President Donald Trump’s administration might turn back the “overly passive” stance they said the Barack Obama White House put forward over the last eight years.

“Frankly our policy toward Iran and the Mullah regime in Iran has been detached from reality and it’s basically wishful thinking of the worst sort,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said at the hearing.

But Democrats doubted former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s statement putting Iran “on notice” actually represents a shift in policy from the one the Obama administration put forward, which Republicans have soundly criticized.

“That’s not really a plan, I hope the administration will make it clear what their plan is on Iran because surely Iran will continue its provocative behavior,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said at the hearing.

The criticism from Republicans on Thursday was largely the same as what they levied against the nuclear deal with Iran that the Obama administration negotiated in 2015. That deal granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for commitments that it cut back its nuclear program.

Republicans at the hearing were hopeful that Trump would put in place additional sanctions for Iran’s recent missile tests and take steps to discourage businesses from investing in the country.

“The nuclear agreement did not leave us defenseless against Tehran’s threatening behavior,” Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said at the hearing. “Careful coordination is a must and all along we should be clear that the choice is with Iran to end its threatening, destabilizing behavior.”

Serving as a backdrop to the hearing was Flynn’s statement from earlier this month saying the administration has put Iran “on notice” following Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles. Flynn has since resigned amid charges that he had improper contacts with a Russian ambassador before the Trump administration took office.

These ties to Russia had Democrats and one former Obama administration official who testified at the hearing alarmed. They questioned how Trump could possibly get tough on Iran while undertaking “strategic flirtation” with Russia, which is considered an ally of Iran.

“I’ll be blunt, I don’t think we can do it,” said Andrew Exum, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration.

While Exum said certain people in the Trump administration, most notably Secretary of Defense James Mattis, give him some hope that the United States will be able to handle threats from Iran, the uncertainty in the administration evidenced by Flynn’s departure concerns him.

“There is some cause for optimism that this administration will eventually put together a coherent strategy to counter Iran’s malign activities in a way that serves U.S. interests,” Exum told the committee. “But the contradictions in the administration’s strategic initiatives thus far, not to mention the alarming and unprecedented dysfunction in the national security decision-making process leaves plenty of room for worry as well.”

Some Democrats used their time asking questions to call on Chairman Royce to hold new hearings on Russia and Flynn’s contacts with the country. Royce said the committee will hold hearings on Russia in the near future.

The partisan sparring led to some tense moments at a hearing otherwise intensely focused on the intricacies of Iranian sanctions and missile defense systems.

Royce had to remind the committee of Congressional decorum rules after Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., accused Democrats of exhibiting “faux outrage” over Trump’s connections with Russia while the party ignored Republicans’ charges against the country’s human rights violations and increased aggression under Obama.

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