Iran Hearings on the Hill

WASHINGTON D.C. — Both the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees convened Wednesday to discuss the many strategic challenges posed by Iran — two meetings only amplified in significance following the news that Iran had test-launched nine missiles earlier in the day.

Opening the House committee’s hearing, Chairman Howard L. Berman spoke about Iran’s missile test most directly:

To illustrate the immediacy of [the Iranian threat], we need look no further than today’s news of an Iranian long-range missile test – a missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload to Israel. This, coupled with the belligerent talk from Tehran of “enemy targets” being “under surveillance,” could not make it any clearer that we need to use every diplomatic and economic tool available to steer Iran away from developing nuclear weapons capability.

Sen. Joe Biden in the Senate Foreign Relations hearing, however, took a much less alarmist approach:

The issue is not whether Iran presents a real security challenge. It does. The question is whether we have a realistic view of that challenge — and a coherent policy to deal with it. Iran is not ten feet tall. It is not the Soviet Union at the height of its power. Despite is large oil reserves it faces serious economic problems – including high inflation and unemployment. It has very few friends and its people chafe under social and political repression. It spends about $7 billion on defense every year – about what we spend in Iraq every two weeks.

According to Biden and other Congressional leaders attending Wednesday’s hearings the United States must redesign its policy toward Iran, balancing engagement and sanctions more effectively. While there’s still room for improvement in the North Korean nuclear situation, America must apply the lessons it’s learned there to the Iranian standoff, Biden said.

As Biden’s testimony indicates, one of those lessons concerns gauging Iran’s relative strength. According to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who testified in front of both committees on Wednesday, Iran has its share of gaping political and economic vulnerabilities. “Iran has no real friends anywhere that could offer strategic reassurance, vital investment, or a secure future in a globalized world,” Burns said. “Many of its neighbors retain wary relations, its alliances are limited to a handful of countries, such as Syria, Belarus, Cuba, and Venezuela, and its destabilizing actions have drawn the international community closer in unprecedented fashion.” Even its one-time close ally, Syria, has made noteworthy efforts to negotiate with Israel, one of Iran’s biggest enemies, Burns said.

But the growing international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program, according to Burns, assists U.S. strategy in two ways. First, in accordance with current U.S. policy, America can rely even more on the international community to enforce sanctions. For example, the European Union’s recent decision to impose a freeze on Bank Melli, Iran’s largest bank, both hampers Iran economically and demonstrates the world community’s willingness to hold Iran accountable for its actions, Burns said. Second, Iran’s internal instability offers new opportunities for the U.S. to engage Iranian citizens directly and combat anti-Americanism. This, most recently, has come in the form of athlete exchange programs (to coincide with the Beijing Olympics).

Even so, some of the United State’s best tools to defuse the Iranian standoff are regional in scope. Revitalizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, strengthening Iraqi reconstruction efforts and confronting Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively, could force Iran into a lonely corner and encourage a change in its nuclear course, according to Biden.