WASHINGTON — The nation’s top defense and diplomatic officials appeared before senators today with brusque words for Republicans who sent an open letter to mullahs about Congress’ role in nuclear negotiations and more cautious words for the Islamic Republic’s role in Iraq.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was intended to review President Obama’s authorization for use of military force request against ISIS.
Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who visited Baghdad and Irbil three weeks ago, said he’s concerned that “every single thing the United States is doing right now in Iraq, things that I support, I might add, to deal with ISIS, every single thing that we’re doing is … making Iraq a better place for Iran.”
Corker asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey if there should be “any concern by people here that Iran is influencing the outcome against ISIS” through Shiite militias.
“Is that a concern that anyone that cares about U.S. national interest should have?” the senator asked.
“Yes, of course. There’s six things that from the military’s perspective concern us about Iranian influence. Four of them are regional, two of them are global. The four regional concerns are: surrogates and proxies, some of which are present in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and other places, and Yemen; weapons trafficking; ballistic missile technologies; and mines that they’ve developed with the intent to be able to close the Straits of Hormuz if certain circumstances would cause them to do that,” Dempsey replied.
“And then the two global threats, of course, are their nuclear aspirations. Not their nuclear aspirations for a peaceful nuclear program, but for a weapon, which is being dealt with through the negotiations on a diplomatic track. And then cyber is the other global threat they pose. So, Iran’s activities across the region and in the cases of nuclear aspirations and cyber activities are concerning, of course.”
Corker stressed that he wanted an answer narrowed to Iran’s involvement in Tikrit and Mosul. “Should we care that Iran’s militias and others are involved in helping move ISIS out of those areas, or will help move out of those areas when we begin the Mosul attack?”
“I think there’s general consensus both inside of our own forces and also with the coalition partners with whom I engage that anything anyone does to counter ISIL is in the main a good outcome. In other words, the activities of the Iranians, the support for the Iraqi security forces is a positive thing in military terms against ISIL. But we are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating and ISIL is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups within it. We’re very concerned about that,” Dempsey said.
“We have no indications that they intend to turn on us, but what we are watching carefully is whether the — the militias — they call themselves the Popular Mobilization Forces, whether — when they recapture lost territory, whether they engage in acts of retribution and ethnic cleansing. There’s no indication that that is a widespread event at this point, but we’re watching closely.”
Human Rights Watch has been documenting abuses by militias in Iraq that could be tantamount to war crimes — and not much different from the horrors the people have suffered under the Islamic State.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) quizzed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter about whether Iran’s goal is to become the “most dominant regional power.”
“Probably true, yes,” Carter replied.
“General Dempsey, you agree, the Iranians are not fans of U.S. military presence in the Middle East?” Rubio continued.
“I think they have the same suspicion about us that we have of them,” the Joint Chiefs leader responded.
Rubio told Secretary of State John Kerry that he believes “much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so that they don’t walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you’re working on.”
“I think this has been a misread by a lot of people up here on the Hill, to be honest with you: There is no grand bargain being discussed here in the context of this negotiation. This is about a nuclear weapon potential. That’s it. And the president has made it absolutely clear they will not get a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said.
“Now, the presumption by a lot of people up on the Hill here has been that we somehow aren’t aware of that goal, even as we negotiate that goal. Our negotiation is calculated to make sure they can’t get a nuclear weapon. And it’s — it’s really almost insulting that the presumption here is that we’re gonna negotiate something that allows them to get nuclear weapon.”
On the original question of whether ISIS strategy is being driven by not wanting to irk Iran: “Absolutely not in the least,” Kerry insisted.
Kerry called “flat wrong” Rubio pointing out that negotiations in Iran have “impacted our trust level” with critical allies in the coalition against ISIS.
“So you’re saying here today that our allies in the region, our Sunni allies, the Saudis, the UAE, the Egyptians and others, are perfectly comfortable of where the negotiations stand at this moment,” Rubio said.
“No, I didn’t say that. I did not say that. They are not perfectly comfortable. They’re nervous, they’re apprehensive. Of course they are,” Kerry said. “They want to make sure that, in fact, just as members of Congress want to make sure, that the deal that is struck, if one can be struck now, will in fact prevent them from getting a weapon.”
And speaking of Congress, Kerry got a chance to slam Senate Republicans for the letter led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who does not sit on the committee.
“My reaction to the letter was utter disbelief. During my 29 years here in the Senate, I never heard of nor even heard of it being proposed anything comparable to this. If I had, I can guarantee you, no matter what the issue, no matter who was president, I would have certainly rejected it,” Kerry claimed, adding the letter “ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy.”
He said the senators were wrong when they assumed that the agreement with Iran will be legally binding — “it’s not” — and said Congress doesn’t have “the right to modify an agreement reached, executive to executive, between countries — between leaders of a country.”
Plus, Kerry said, if the countries in the P5+1 all sign off on the agreement, “I’d like to see the next president… turn around and just nullify it on behalf of the United States. That’s not gonna happen.”
“It purports to tell the world that if you want to have any confidence in your dealings with America, they have to negotiate with 535 members of Congress,” he said. “That is both untrue and profoundly a bad suggestion to make, I think.”
Corker eventually interjected. “Mr. Secretary, I know that’s a well-written speech, but…”
“It’s not a speech, my friend. This is not a speech. This is a statement about the impact of this irresponsible letter,” Kerry retorted. “…I’m laying out to the committee what the impact is. I’m sorry if people up here don’t want to hear.”
“Five minutes and 26 seconds later, you finished,” Corker quipped.
Corker was one of seven Senate Republicans who didn’t sign the letter, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the administration should butt Congress out of the negotiations process.
He’s co-author of the Senate bill to require that lawmakers get an up-or-down vote on any nuclear agreement to come out of the Iran talks.
“I’m very disappointed that you’ve gone back on your statement that any agreement must pass muster with Congress,” Corker scolded Kerry. “The way we pass muster here is we vote. And I think all of us are very disappointed with the veto threat and the stiff-arming that is taking place.”