At Committee Hearing, Portman Discusses Need for a Comprehensive Iran Strategy

March 28, 2017 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned Iran experts today on how the United States can more effectively confront Iranian aggression during a hearing examining U.S. policy towards Iran. Senator Portman, who was an outspoken critic of President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, focused his questions on the need to develop a comprehensive strategy that confronts Iran’s nuclear program, conventional aggression and ambitions to dominate the region rather than continue the approach of the previous administration which sacrificed efforts to hold Iran accountable for its destabilizing behavior for fear of upsetting the nuclear agreement.  

A transcript of the questioning can be found below and you can watch the video here.

Senator Portman: “Mr. Singh, you noted in your testimony something I thought was interesting, which is that you believe that the Iranian nuclear program is dangerous because Iranian foreign policy is dangerous. As I look back at what happened over the past several years, it seems to me that one of the mistakes the previous administration made was failing to link the negotiations over an Iran Deal with other issues that are unrelated to the weapons program, but that create real instability in the region, and we’ve talked a lot about that today. At the time, I remember the Obama administration arguing that if we could just get this agreement done then we’d be able to have leverage over Iran on these other issues and hold them accountable. I think just the opposite happened, to be frank with you. I think because we were so afraid that they’d walk away, we pulled back and in terms of holding them accountable on non-nuclear behavior. I just wonder if you could give us your sense of what we should do now. We’ve talked about several ideas. But I look at what’s happening in Yemen—you talked about proxy wars—I look at Hezbollah and frankly I think the immediate danger in the region is not nuclear; it’s conventional, and specifically Hezbollah and Israel. I also look at what’s happening in the sea lanes. You mentioned that today, and you talked about some new issues outside the Straits of Hormuz and what’s happening with them harassing our naval ships but also commercial vessels. Certainly the missile testing. All of which has just continued unabated, and there hasn’t been any leverage that’s been applied based on the agreement. So, we’ve got a new administration; we have a fresh start. Again, you’ve laid out various ideas. I’m going to challenge you both: give us the two most important ideas that each of you have to deal with the non-nuclear behavior in the region.”

Michael Singh: “Well Senator Portman, let me say first that I agree with your analysis. I think one of the most important ideas we can have for pushing back at Iran in the region is to sort of reverse the paradigm through which we have approached this issue for the past eight years, I would say. I think Iran was inappropriately seen as primarily a nonproliferation problem. And in a sense we viewed Iran policy through the lens of the nuclear negotiations. It’s not that the nuclear issue is not important, it’s absolutely critical, but not just because of proliferation but because Iran is such a threat to the region. I think we now need to reverse that. We need to see the nuclear issue and the JCPOA through the lens of our efforts to counter the broader threats that Iran poses. So we can’t subordinate our efforts to push back on Iran to any desire to preserve the JCPOA. I think we should want to preserve the JCPOA for a lot of the reasons that have already been mentioned, but not if it means having to act against our own interests, not if it means having to refrain from addressing those broader threats that Iran poses. The second idea is essentially that by doing that, by showing our partners in the region, by showing our allies in the region that we’re not just focused on, say, the ISIS threat, we’re not just focused on Syria or this or that, but we’re focused on pushing back on Iran, I actually think that will unlock cooperation at a sort of broader strategic level around the region. I think we’ll get a better hearing when it comes to, say, helping Iraq from our allies or pushing back against the Assad regime in Syria if they believe we are strategically on the same page as we are.”

Portman: “I couldn’t agree with you more… I’m going to move to Ambassador Indyk, if you could give me what your top two are.”

The Honorable Martin S. Indyk: “The first one is a novel idea of having a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Iran’s challenges in the region.”

Portman: “Bringing our partners in. The Gulf state countries and others.”

Indyk: “Yes, but a comprehensive strategy that deals with all of the places where they are pushing and promoting their hegemonic ambitions. Number two is to understand where the priorities need to be. The two most important places for a push back strategy are Iraq and Syria. There’s a real opportunity in Iraq because we have something to work with now and our Sunni Arab allies are for the first time ready to engage with their government and to help with their effort to deal with the aftermath of the elimination of ISIS. But Syria is much more complicated. We have much less to deal with. But those are the two most important places where we can have an impact and where we can start to take apart Iran’s ambitions.”

Portman: “I was encouraged to hear what you said about the Iraqi Prime Minister being interested in actually having some distance from Iran. He was here, as you know, last week. We had the opportunity to visit with him. I sensed a little change in the attitude as well, but on the ground do you see that? In other words, do you see the Shi’a forces in Iraq, not the Iranian forces, being willing to also have some distance? You talked about the necessity of Mosul not being a victory for Iran and its surrogate forces, but do you see the Shi’a community in Iraq also being willing to encourage that distance?”

Indyk: “I think the key is what comes from the top. If we have a government that is prepared to look after the interests of all of its separate communities rather than to favor one over the other, that’s a huge advance.  In terms of the Shi’a militias rather than the Shi’a community, that is an incredibly complicated and delicate issue because we do not need the Shi’a militias to create problems for us as we prosecute the war against ISIS in Mosul.”

Portman: “My time’s expired and I don’t want to hold my other colleagues up, but we look forward to following up with you on that particular issue.”

NOTE: In December of last year, Senator Portman voted to re-authorize the Iran Sanctions Act, which extends key sanctions designed to block the Iranian regime from obtaining resources to support terrorism and develop weapons of mass destruction.

Senator Portman has made clear that the Iran deal is a bad deal for America and that it will undermine our national security and make Americans less safe. He has been vocal on continued Iranian misbehavior, and has introduced two bills to further impose sanctions on the Iranian regime.

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