WASHINGTON — The Republican Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence says that the current proposal presented by the P5+1 countries to Iran “gives too much too fast, and I think that we should vote for another round of sanctions.”
In an exclusive telephone interview with Al-Monitor, Rep. Mike Rogers, who represents Michigan’s eighth district, said he is worried that the current proposal, which includes some sanctions relief to Iran, has alienated members of Congress in both parties, as well as US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
With further sanctions, Rogers said, members of Congress and US allies in the region skeptical of the negotiations would “be more likely to support an effort to try to get a deal.”
US President Barack Obama today asked members of Congress to hold off on further sanctions on Iran while the P5+1 countries pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran. Negotiators will meet in Geneva on November 20 for the next round of talks.
Rogers, who is a co-sponsor of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, which passed the House with a 400-20 vote on July 3, and whose Senate version is pending before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, referred to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a “new leader who is talking sweet but carrying a very sharp stick.”
“I just think that it is too early,” said Rogers, “and if they are willing to negotiate at this point, with another round of sanctions we’ll get something that is meaningful.”
Rogers characterized the US position in Syria, and the rise of terrorist groups in the region, as illustrative of a “broken Middle East policy.”
“I believe that the White House needs to revamp all of its efforts in Syria,” he said. “We need to sit down and figure out what is our immediate goal and then let’s configure our limited resources to the impact of that particular limited goal versus this grandiose goal of Assad being gone and there being peace across Syria.”
”We’re well beyond that,” he added. “Unfortunately, and we have got to be realistic about where we are today, where the problems are coming from today, and we just haven’t crossed that threshold yet and until we do that you are going to get a bad deal in Iran, you are going to get continued chaos in Syria, and we are doing a fine job of alienating our allies in the Middle East.”
Rogers recognized Al-Monitor for “bringing attention to issues that are difficult to understand, and certainly need all of us paying attention to, so I appreciate the work that you all do there.”
Al-Monitor: US Secretary of State John Kerry and others in the administration have been briefing members of Congress on Iran. How do you assess the state of the nuclear negotiations with Iran? Do you support the administration’s request to hold off on further sanctions for now or should the Congress proceed with sanctions legislation?
Rogers: We had a preliminary meeting a couple of weeks ago where they [the Administration] laid out the case on why they didn’t want additional sanctions, why they wanted to actually turn the release valve a little bit on Iran upfront in their negotiations. What was interesting about that meeting, and these were senior leadership offices, and national security committees -- Foreign Affairs, Intel, Armed Services – there was a significant bi-partisan skepticism expressed to the administration at this point.
What was surprising to me is how it was overwhelming, and said “hey you might not want to do this.” I have never seen that much of a bi-partisan strong reaction, negative reaction, to their idea that they were going to release a little bit of the pressure and move out smartly on trying to get a deal with Iran. Nobody thought it was a good idea and people certainly didn’t like the notion that they were going to get some relief, right when we thought the sanctions were backing them into a place where we might be able to get them to cooperate fully on their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Al-Monitor: There is a unified P5+1 proposal now to Iran and the administration is saying that now we have a new situation with these negotiations. Do you think that the Congress is willing to stand down at least for another week or so, or do you think that they are going to believe that you are going to have to keep pushing sanctions even as the talks continue?
Rogers: Remember one thing: the President opposed the sanctions that Congress passed, but he ended up signing it for the first round. He opposed the second round of sanctions, then they came to the Congress and said, the sanctions are working and now we have got them right where we want them, and so what we are going to do is proffer a deal that releases some of the pressure on the sanctions. And in these deals, they have left more problems on the table than they have solved.
That’s why people who are serious students of Capitol Hill and international affairs, public policy, national security matters, with a significant bipartisan majority, are saying, "Hey, this is a bad deal. And let’s not have a deal just to have a deal, that is dangerous."
Certainly Israel agrees with that position. They are very, very worried about this. I am very worried about it. I think it is not well done. I think it gives too much too fast, and I think that we should vote for another round of sanctions to let the White House know that when you go into something like this you need to have everybody at the table and you need to get everybody engaged in this, you can’t not have your Congress, not have one of your strongest allies in the region, lose your Arab League partners in this deal, who are very skeptical of it and have such huge skepticism expressed across Europe, and expect this thing to work.
This is a new leader [in Iran] who is talking sweet but carrying a very sharp stick. I just think that it is too early and if they are willing to negotiate at this point, with another round of sanctions we’ll get something that is meaningful that we all, all of the players that I just mentioned, [would] be more likely to support an effort to try to get a deal. I think they are doing it for the wrong reasons.
Al-Monitor: Let me move to Syria. The war in Syria has now seemed to become ground zero for Jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and those who are involved in destabilizing, not only Syria but Iraq and Lebanon. What more do you think the US should be doing to address the growing terrorist threat that we are seeing there and how do you feel at this point about Saudi Arabia’s role in Syria, as an ally are they helping or hindering US interests there?
Rogers: I think this is the first bit of sunshine on what is a broken Middle East policy. Many of us for years have been saying listen, our allies are telling us: The Arab League, Israel, Turkey, “Hey we don’t understand what US policy is right now.” That is always a dangerous thing. And because of that we have seen strained relations getting stronger and getting stronger. Certainly Israel over Iran, now Saudi Arabia not only over Syria but Iran, the Qataris have strong disagreements with us over our Syria policy, Jordan [has] strong disagreements. That list gets pretty long and when you get one layer down from the civil and polite nice diplomatic expressions of “We are going to continue to work through it,” you will get the more pointed conversation about how dangerous and destabilizing the lack of this president’s policy in the Middle East, that is at least coherent to any of our friends, is.
That is when Saudi Arabia says, “Hey, we are going to find ways now to do things without America. “ In the long run that is not healthy for US national security interests and it is not good for Middle East peace and stability, and it certainly isn’t good for Iran’s pressure on getting a nuclear weapon. We may drive Saudi Arabia into buying a weapon from Pakistan, a nuclear weapon. That is a Middle East arms race because we don’t have the right leadership in that region at the time that it needs it most.
Al-Monitor: What can the US do to deal with the terrorist threat that we see growing? The terrorist attacks in Iraq for example are as bad as they have ever been, that is connected to what is happening in Syria, and Lebanon and Jordan are always on the knife’s edge over there.
Rogers: And you think about where we are. Iran is getting a little bit of pressure relieved if this deal moves forward, they have to show very little progress to get it, they are still actively engaged in what is sectarian violence in Iraq, they are clearly propping up the violence in Syria to the point where it is getting close to a sectarian proxy war led through Tehran, that is inflaming problems in Jordan, in Lebanon, certainly southern Turkey with the Kurdish issue and others. All of the roads and trouble right now lead through Tehran.
So if you want to have an impact in Syria, you have to focus on it. This is going to take both serious diplomatic and soft American power and a full and better understanding of the growing threat from Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements in the East now spreading around to different regions in Syria.
I believe that the White House needs to revamp all of its efforts in Syria, we need to sit down and figure out what is our immediate goal and then let’s configure our limited resources to the impact of that particular limited goal versus this grandiose goal of Assad being gone and there being peace across Syria.
We’re well beyond that, unfortunately, and we have got to be realistic about where we are today, where the problems are coming from today, and we just haven’t crossed that threshold yet and until we do that you are going to get a bad deal in Iran, you are going to get continued chaos in Syria, and we are doing a fine job of alienating our allies in the Middle East.
Al-Monitor: Is there anything else in the Middle East that we should be paying attention to in terms of threats to our country that aren’t getting the attention they deserve?
Rogers: Well we’re in an interesting place in Syria, you have a bit of a rift between Al Nusra Front and some other groups, the Islamic movement in the Levant, the Iraqi al-Qaeda movement, [ED: the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, ISIS], and the core of al-Qaeda. And so the conflict is that they think they have established enough safe havens, we believe, across swaths of western Iraq, eastern Syria, where they can launch external operations. And I believe that is because they have so many Westerners, with Western papers, showing up to join the jihadist movement there, so they are getting further radicalized, trained and they believe that they are going to develop a cadre that is going to go back and do pretty terrible things across Western Europe and even the United States.
That’s when I mean about, "Hey, we need to refocus on this problem." I don’t think people are focusing enough on it, and right now the (ED note: al-Qaeda) core I think is interested in them trying to have local progress, and I think that some of the affiliate groups there are saying, "This is the time that we can do external operations."
That’s pretty dangerous stuff, at the end of the day, and we had better get a handle on it soon and we had better start paying attention to it.
I am getting out of time now but I do want to say that I appreciate Al-Monitor and the work that they do in bringing attention to issues that are difficult to understand, and certainly need all of us paying attention to, so I appreciate the work that you all do there.