WASHINGTON — The leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee cast heavy doubt on the prospects for Iran fulfilling the six-month nuclear agreement currently underway, with Democratic Ranking Member Eliot Engel (N.Y.) stressing “we should be under no illusion that somehow these are nice people and everything is wonderful.”
Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) recounted how Congress perpetually had to lean on the executive branch to agree to tough enough sanctions on the Islamic Republic in the first place, from the Clinton administration to the present day.
“The great irony for me is those who were opposed for so many years now say it’s the sanctions that got the Iranians to the table,” Royce said alongside Engel at a panel at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington on Sunday.
Royce stressed that they would have ever greater leverage at the bargaining table if sanctions hadn’t been “watered down” and lamented the stall of tougher sanctions passed in the House at the end of July on an overwhelming vote of 400-20. “I think we lost the opportunity by not forcing that action sooner,” he said of its death in the Senate.
Engel brought up the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.”
“I don’t trust them and we need to verify,” the New York Democrat said. “Congress obviously plays a very, very important role in the struggle to make sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.”
He expressed disappointment in the sanctions relief included in the interim deal by the Obama administration. “I was hoping we could keep the pressure on while negotiations are going on,” Engel continued. “…It’s the same regime and we need to know that before we can deal with them effectively.”
Royce said a key congressional concern is “that once you start the process” of a sanctions rollback “it would be an excuse for everyone to beat a path to Iran’s door.”
“Anyone who makes investments in Iran is likely to lose that investment,” the chairman said, comparing the current situation to when Congress had to override dragging diplomacy “to get the job done with respect to moving South Africa in a different direction.”
“It’s quite unlikely that Iran is going to comply to the requirements we’re seeking here,” Royce said. “…If they don’t play ball, at the end of the day we need to move forward.”
Engel said what especially bothers him is not the administration pledge that no deal is better than a bad deal, but what will constitute a “bad deal.” He called it an “ominous” sign that “as we’re sitting and talking they continue to enrich.”
“It should not have been too much to say to the Iranians ‘while we’re talking, you stop enriching,'” he said, adding he also doesn’t want to see a “deal that freezes their program at 96%.”
Steering toward Syria as an interconnected issue, Engel said the administration made a “blunder” by not backing the Free Syrian Army before it lost traction and jihadists came into the country. “Now we’re caught between a rock and a hard place…. I think we blew a great opportunity,” the congressman said.
Sending the message that “maybe the United States doesn’t have the gumption” to enforce the “red line” has had consequences, Engel stressed. “Other countries now feel that we’re abandoning them in the Middle East.”
Engel added that he has “problems” with the concept of talking to Iran “at the same time they’re being such bad players in Syria.”
“Just the way Putin can’t have it both ways,” he said. “I don’t think you can disconnect the two.”
Of Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to forge a Middle East peace deal, something Engel acknowledged is a legacy issue for the former senator, it has to be hinged on one thing the Palestinians have already said is a non-starter.
“The reason peace has been elusive isn’t because there are settlements,” Engel said. “Sixty-six years after the creation of the Jewish state and the Palestinians still will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state…. They really need to come to grips with the fact that the Jewish state is here to stay.”
“What I don’t want to see is imposition of any final settlement” by the U.S. or anybody, he added. “…It cannot be only a one-sided thing. They have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”
Engel said the Foreign Affairs Committee prides itself “on being the most bipartisan committee in Congress” that feels “very strongly about separation of powers.”
“We don’t roll over for whoever happens to be president at the time,” he said.”…The strongest support for Israel over the years has always been in the Congress.”
“…We’re at the 11th hour with Iran. It never should have gotten to this point.”