Washington, DC – The following is Congressman Howard L. Berman’s , Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opening statement as prepared for delivery at today’s committee hearing entitled “Iran and Syria: Next Steps – Part II.”
Madame Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing. When you called it, you could not have known just how timely it would be. All of us are sickened by Iran’s twisted and despicable plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador and possibly bomb the Israeli and Saudi embassies. The involvement of the Quds force is telling – this scheme was not hatched by some rogue operator, but by an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the very essence of the regime.
Together, Iran and Syria form the heart of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism and Middle Eastern terrorism. Syria is Iran’s forward operating base in the Arab world, and Iran is Syria’s major external supporter, helping the Assad regime murder the Syrian people now fighting for their freedom.
We have many of the same concerns about both regimes – their sponsorship of terrorism, their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, their denial of their citizens’ rights, and their cynical use of the most brutal means to intimidate a populace that detests their rule.
Broadly speaking, we have used the same tools to deal with threats coming from Iran and Syria – namely, sanctions – and those sanctions have been at least partially successful.
Financial sanctions on Iran have complicated Iran’s ability to do business in the world, including selling its oil, the industry that produces 90% of Iran’s revenue. The legislation we authored last Congress, CISADA, has led to a significant decline in Iran’s ability to purchase refined petroleum and to a near halt in the development of their oil and gas industries.
Just this week, the International Air Transport Association announced that Iran’s national airline would no longer be included in worldwide ticketing networks because of sanctions-related complications. The message to Iranians is clear: their government’s illegitimate nuclear policies are undermining their prosperity and isolating them from the international community.
Syria’s situation is more desperate than Iran’s and is likely to become even more so when the EU boycott of Syrian oil fully kicks in next month. In an effort to save foreign currency, which Syria reportedly has been hemorrhaging at the rate of at least $5 million per day, Syria recently banned imports of many consumer goods, until the complaints of Syria’s business class forced the Assad regime to relent. The Syrians claim they have two years’ worth of foreign currency reserves, but most experts expect that they will be out of cash well before that.
Despite these successes, it increasingly appears that current levels of sanctions are not enough to get the job done quickly in Syria, or to get it done at all in Iran. In Syria, more pressure is needed. Turkey, a major Syrian trading partner, has significantly modified its decade-old policy of intimacy with Assad, but it has not yet implemented the sanctions it has pledged. Syria’s other major trading partner, Iraq, unfortunately continues to support the Syrian regime. If Assad is to be removed soon, as we all desire, we need more pressure from Syria’s neighbors.
We also need the Syrian opposition to accelerate its efforts to unify and to develop in a manner that establishes the nucleus of a plausible transitional government. Its meeting in Istanbul two weeks ago, with the declaration of a widely-inclusive Syrian National Council, was an important step, but, by its own admission, this group is far from ready for prime-time as an alternative government.
As for Iran, although knocked off-balance by sanctions, its economy is far from broken – thanks to high global oil prices. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear program continues to progress rapidly, and the threat has now grown more urgent than ever.
The most recent inspection report by the IAEA shows that Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium continue to grow. One respected analyst has concluded that Iran now has almost enough low-enriched uranium to produce four – four – nuclear weapons, if it were to kick-out international inspectors and further refine this material to weapons-grade levels. Iran could then produce its first bomb within six-to-12 months, and several more in the next year after that. And, alarmingly, the IAEA reports that Iran is now installing centrifuges six times as efficient as its current model in its large enrichment facility in Natanz. When fully operational, this could reduce Iran’s break-out time to two – three months.
Madame Chairman, there are additional steps that must be taken to help prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In particular, our bill, the Iran Threat Reduction Act, H.R. 1905, will tighten the screws further. I know we will mark up that bill soon.
Another is stricter enforcement of current sanctions. And I certainly look forward to more vigorous enforcement from the Administration, which I know shares our goals. Just to cite a couple of examples: The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps owns a company that controls virtually every port in Iran. Yet, I have not heard that we are sanctioning ships that use that company’s port services, as CISADA requires. President Ahmadinejad and many other senior officials who are guilty of the worst human-rights abuses in Iran have not been sanctioned under CISADA. These are but two of many possible sanctions that could be imposed.
Yet another important step would be a decision by Gulf Arab states – perhaps the states most directly threatened by Iran, as the plot revealed this week should remind them – to ramp up their oil exports. That would result in ramping down oil prices and would significantly diminish Iran’s income.
But, since I don’t expect the Gulf states to take such an action any time soon – even though it would manifestly be in their interest to do so – and since the time for partial-measures has passed, I think it’s time for us to consider taking an even more dramatic measure: designating Iran’s Central Bank as a facilitator of terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Our best hope for slowing the Iranian nuclear train is to bring its financial machinery to a grinding halt. And sanctioning banks and companies in other countries that do business with Iran’s Central Bank would have a uniquely powerful impact on the Iranian economy and on Iranian revenue.
Until now, we have sanctioned only Iranian banks that were directly tied to terrorism or weapons-of-mass-destruction proliferation. But, having peeled away the skin of the onion, it is now clear that at the core of this banking network sits the Central Bank, the ultimate enabler for all Iranian terrorism and WMD-proliferation.
For years, there has been speculation about whether a nuclear-armed Iran would actually use the bomb. As the revelation of the Washington bombing plot underscores, we know that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility regarding Iran’s willingness to employ violence in pursuit of its objectives and to do so in the most vicious and amoral fashion. I can’t conceive of a more irresponsible or frightening finger on the nuclear button than that of the Iranian regime.
The time for stopping Iran’s march to nuclear-threshold status is preciously limited. We must take bold measures, and we must do so very soon.