“It is clear that the Asad regime – through its murderous crackdown on unarmed civilians – has relinquished most or all of whatever legitimacy it may once have enjoyed among the Syrian people. Its demise would likely lead to the achievement of one of our most cherished strategic goals: breaking the bond between Damascus, on the one hand, and Tehran and Hezbollah, on the other.” – Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee hearing entitled “Iran and Syria: Next Steps.”

Iran and Syria, the world’s two leading state-sponsors of terrorism, present a broad range of threats to US policy. None of these is of greater concern, however, than their programs for developing weapons of mass destruction. We have devoted considerable time to the Iranian nuclear threat over the past two Congresses. It’s critical that we continue to do that. We face no greater long-term challenge to our national security than preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.

That’s why I’m cosponsoring your bill, Madame Chairman -- the Iran Threat Reduction Act -- which strengthens sanctions on those who assist Iran’s nuclear program, directly or indirectly.

We must be firm in our insistence that Iran meet its UN Security Council obligation to suspend uranium enrichment. We should seek to achieve that goal by peaceful means, but with full awareness that, in order to make our diplomacy as effective as possible, all options must remain on the table.

The United States and like-minded countries must do more to pressure other countries to implement UN sanctions on Iran, including a state-by-state effort to upgrade legal and practical export controls; greater effort to identify and take-down Iran’s front companies; and institution of “catch-all” controls to prevent the export of prohibited items for Iran’s uranium enrichment program, including those that fall just below control thresholds but that could be upgraded; and other similar measures.

On the home front, I have been encouraged by recent sanctions imposed by the Administration, using the authorities established by Congress last year. The Administration’s actions have an important symbolic and deterrent effect, but I am still looking forward to the first energy-related sanctions on foreign companies that actually do business with the United States. And, as I have said before, there is significant evidence that Chinese companies are engaged in sanctionable investment activities in Iran. I’d like to see those companies sanctioned. Many other companies and nations have ceased doing business with Iran at our behest. We don’t want them to get the idea that we’re not really serious about sanctions.

As for Syrian efforts to construct an illicit and clandestine nuclear reactor, the decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier this month to refer Syria’s noncompliance with its safeguards obligations to the UN Security Council was an important diplomatic achievement.

The Security Council must take action to force Syria to come clean. And I’d like to see the Administration pull out the stops to impose Security Council sanctions, although it will not be easy to overcome Russian and Chinese objections.

Russia should also drop its objection to the public release of the recently completed “Panel of Experts” report on Iran commissioned by the UN Security Council. The world must know about Iran’s nefarious efforts to elude sanctions, develop ever-longer-range missiles, and provide weapons to Syria.

Let me say a further word about Syria, in the context of the so-called Arab Spring. If we’re honest about the wave of uprisings over the past few months, we have to acknowledge that they’ve evoked many conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they certainly appeal to our democratic convictions and our bedrock values. On the other hand, we worry that they may produce regimes that are not supportive of our interests – and, at the end of the day, perhaps these regimes won’t even be democratic.

In Egypt, for example, we’re concerned that the new regime will be less committed to the peace treaty with Israel. In majority-Shiite Bahrain, we’re concerned that a more democratic regime might be one that is closer to Iran and less hospitable to the US Fifth Fleet. In Yemen, there is the question whether a new and hopefully more humane regime would protect our counter-terrorism interests to the same extent as President Saleh. These are concerns, not conclusions, but they constitute some of the more prominent examples of Arab uprisings where values and interests compete for the upper hand in the US policy debate.

In one Arab country, however, I see in the protests the potential for a remarkable merging of our most critical interests and our most fundamental values. And that country is Syria.

It is clear that the Asad regime – through its murderous crackdown on unarmed civilians – has relinquished most or all of whatever legitimacy it may once have enjoyed among the Syrian people. Its demise would likely lead to the achievement of one of our most cherished strategic goals: breaking the bond between Damascus, on the one hand, and Tehran and Hezbollah, on the other. That would deprive Iran of its primary base of operations in the Middle East and mark perhaps its first major strategic setback in the region. And it would also mark a setback for Hezbollah. I don’t think it would prevent Iran from arming Hezbollah altogether, but it would certainly make the job more difficult. To the extent a new Syrian regime wants to be part of the international community, it also may very well break its link with Sunni terrorist groups like Hamas.

How do I know these desirable goals would be achieved with the fall of the Asad regime? I don’t know for certain, but – to the extent that the United States can influence the process – it is certainly worth the risk.

I reject arguments that we are better off with Asad in power.

As for the claim that he is “the devil we know,” let’s keep the following in mind: During Bashar al-Asad’s tenure, there has been no progress toward peace with Israel, Hezbollah has emerged as a major regional power, Iraqi extremists have used Syria as a safe-haven, and Iran has established a beachhead in the Middle East, while advising and assisting Asad in his murderous repression of civilians. How much worse could the next devil be?

The Unites States’ ability to influence the course of events in Syria may be limited. But we should use what tools we have, including sanctions targeted at regime leaders and human rights abusers, to make clear that our sympathies and our shared visions are with the victims, not the victimizers.

The Administration has certainly taken some important steps in that direction in recent weeks. One of those steps was the sanctioning last month of al-Sham Holding, the flagship enterprise of Asad’s corrupt cousin Rami Makhlouf. We should encourage the European Union, Syria’s leading trade partner, to follow our lead in that regard. Makhlouf recently claimed he’s giving up his various businesses; we and our friends should help him do that.

For years now, many strategists in this country have encouraged Syrian-Israeli peace-making for the primary purpose of breaking the Syrian-Iranian tie and beginning the process of pushing Iran out of the Arab Middle East. We now have a historic opportunity to accomplish those goals even before the peace-making begins. This is an opportunity we should not pass up.