House Dem Sees Years-Long Iran Fight Coming to a Head

A veteran congressman who has consistently called for tougher, targeted punitive measures against Iran warned AIPAC that the Islamic Republic wants more than a nuclear capability: hegemony, "terrorism with impunity," and the destruction of Israel.

As a Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman, who represents California's San Fernando Valley, has long known that the fight against this menace transcends party.

And his goal at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference was to arm attendees with the truth to confront those who contend that Iran is not a threat to the U.S., that it can be contained like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, that Israel's suspected nuclear program is also defiance.

"People, particularly those too young to have lost their hair, look back on our confrontations with the Soviet Union in the '50s and '60s as if that was a 'Happy Days' TV show," Sherman told PJM. "We had happy days in those happy days, but we also had a lot of scare and bomb drills where you get your head under the desk. Just because we survived many difficulties with the Soviet Union is no guarantee that you can roll the dice another dozen times and it will all come out just fine."

The congressman's staff was taking down email addresses of interested audience members before and after Monday's breakout session. Sherman promised them that in about a week he'll send out the full, updated text of his address, with footnotes, to keep them up to date on what's happening on the congressional front in regards to Iran.

Like past years at AIPAC, Sherman's straight-talk assessment of the need to get real about Iran's weapons program was one of the best of the conference. But it's not surprising, as he's had years of practice trying to get two very different administrations to get seriously tough on the Islamic Republic.

He stressed to the large meeting room full of AIPAC delegates that Iran cannot be compared with other nuclear production crises such as North Korea, which blusters and then proceeds to "extort the world for 240,000 metric tons of food aid."

"If that was the problem with Iran, I'd buy wheat futures and leave it alone," Sherman said. Yet the world looks at the U.S. and sees Washington using almost the same language the Bush administration used against Pyongyang, he said, and now they have about a dozen weapons.

"This is not a country just trying to live peaceably within its own borders … there is no point on the globe further from Tehran than Buenos Aires," he said, referencing the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, is among those wanted by Interpol in connection with the terrorist attack.

"No one in the world is holding a demonstration calling for the abolition of Persia," he later added.

Sherman stressed that the nuclear energy argument is bunk. As the country with the second largest gas reserves in the world -- so much they have to flare 10 percent of it -- "they could generate kilowatts for a couple cents," he said. "It makes absolutely no sense for them to have Bushehr or any other facility and yet they do."

He noted that "good luck and considerable restraint" on both sides defused the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a comparison to today's crisis doesn't hold water.

"Do you think that either one of those things is in big supply in the Middle East?" he said.

Sherman warned that when Iranians develop a nuclear weapon, it won't be delivered in a conventional fashion. About the size of a person, such a weapon will be smuggled, he predicted.

"I'm from California," he said. "I've seen evidence that it is possible to sneak a person into the United States."

The congressman added smuggling works in Iran's favor because, after a city is hit in this fashion, a presidential panel would be convened to determine what happened, and if that panel decides 90 days later with 93 percent assurance that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is to blame, it's too late for a retaliatory strike.

He told the crowd that sanctions, like the tough ones against the Central Bank of Iran in the bill pushed into law by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), need to be so brutal that they force Tehran to choose between regime survival and a nuclear weapon.

"No one ever gave up their firstborn just to avoid excessive ATM fees," he quipped. "…We need to sanction all Iranian banks and we needed to do it 10 years ago."

Sherman noted that successful strikes against Iran wouldn't necessarily just hit nuclear sites, which could just be rebuilt. Israel could take out their air defenses, he said, hit nuclear facilities as hard as possible, and then demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency be brought in to dismantle the program -- "otherwise something might happen to all of their oil production facilities," which are above ground, spread out and "a regime without oil wells is not a regime that survives."

Sherman, a seven-term congressman, faces a tough Democratic primary June 5 against Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This is the first year California voters will experience an open primary.

Today, Sherman met with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) to persuade it to exclude all Iranian banks. He also looks for sanctions "that will have their effect very quickly," such as keeping Iran from obtaining replacement parts for all of the Western equipment they've acquired over the years.

At the AIPAC panel, the congressman alluded to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey's comments last month on Iran. "It is said this government is rational," Sherman said. "Might be. Stalin was probably classified as rational."

After the panel, I asked for his thoughts on Dempsey's remarks.

"Depending on what your definition of rational is, it's not a false statement," Sherman said."Just because a government's changed and if you're just on the edge of being rational today, there's no rule that says your change is going to be toward rationality; you can go further away."

The examples he gave in his speech were the Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev gave in at the end of the Cold War, and Cambodia, which devolved into genocide under Pol Pot.

I noted that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told me before she took the gavel in the 112th Congress that she wanted Iran to be “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” on the panel's to-do list.

"I think the committee has spent a lot of time focusing on Iran," Sheman said. "I think that America as a whole has been way to slow to implement sanctions that are way too mild. I would say that Ileana is one of those pushing the envelope in the right direction. She's not inclined to push the envelope to the point where you might break it and she's not inclined to pass legislation that the administration would violently oppose.

"But -- it's nice to be a senator -- I give a lot of credit to Menendez and Kirk for forcing the administration to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, something [the White House has] had the power to do for many years and have chosen not to do," he added. "And I should never criticize the Obama administration without pointing out that they're much much tougher on Iran than was the Bush administration."

Sherman, like many other Democrats, has joined hands with his colleagues across the aisle on numerous Iran measures, demonstrating once again the "overwhelming" bipartisan nature of congressional support for Israel and getting tough on Tehran.

"But the more biting the sanctions, the more disruptive, the more they anger multinational corporations, the less unity there is," he said. "So a resolution saying containment is not an option is consistent with the president's speech, whereas preventing General Electric from fixing the engines on the Air Iran aircraft -- I don't know how that's going to turn out, but it's not going to be overwhelming in either direction. And that's just the skirmish line.

"If you want to go to a point to say any company that sells a spare part to Iran is going to be prohibited from any contract with the United States, and apply that to an entire corporate family, not just its subsidiaries but all the corporations owned by the same parent, that's not going to be overwhelming," he said. "The sanctions on the cutting edge, I'll be happy if we get them passed by one percent. I don't need 100 percent."

I asked the question I'd been wondering the whole conference, in regards to the attendees but especially directed toward the members of the House and Senate who were fielding concerns that Obama's speech was just a speech.

In 2010, Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) led a congressional letter telling  Obama, "The hour is late. Now is the time for action."

"Mr. President, you have stated this issue is a priority for your administration," the letter, signed by Sherman and 362 House colleagues, stated in part. "You have attempted to engage the Iranian regime for over a year. You have gone to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to impose tough new sanctions on Iran. But time is not on our side. We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts."

It's now 2012, I said to Sherman. Is there a point when national-security-minded Democrats break with the president?

"To some extent the Menendez-Kirk amendment did not authorize the administration to do something they wanted to do; it forced the administration to take an action that they had declined to take earlier," Sherman said. "I think we already have people pushing the administration further or faster than is its natural inclination."