The U.S. needs to take a tough line with Iran, which is at the center of trouble in the Middle East
•Iran and Russia are playing “negative roles” in the Syrian conflict
•The U.S. should be wary of anything Russian President Putin says and does
•The U.S. should maintain its friendly relations with Saudi Arabia
Washington: Mostafa El-Dessouki
New York Congressman Eliot Engel is the ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Together with the committee’s Republican chairman, Congressman Ed Royce, he was the main driving force behind Congressional legislation supporting the international sanctions regime imposed on Tehran prior to the Iran nuclear deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA]. He broke party ranks to robustly criticize the JCPOA as a “bad deal,” and now, under the Trump Administration, has called for a more robust American effort to counter Iran and its proxies.
In his interview with Majalla, Engel shares his views on Iranian activity in Arab countries and the threat it poses in the broader region and beyond. He calls for a new coalition to counter Tehran. He also reflects on the future of U.S-Russia relations in light of the attempted interference in the US elections.
•What do your experiences in Iran policy over the years bring to bear on present-day concerns about the country?
-I think the U.S. needed and needs to take a tough line with Iran. I didn’t ever think that this Iranian regime, or people from the Iranian regime – like [President] Rouhani – were moderates in any way, shape, or form. I think President Obama was well intentioned, but I disagreed and voted against the Iran bill and the JCPOA because I really don’t believe that the Iranian government can be trusted with any of this. Or the entire negotiation. They did not slow down the spinning of centrifuges, or the enrichment of uranium, and I felt we should have made that a prerequisite. This way it’s like they held a gun over our head. I opposed the agreement for a number of reasons, but two main ones are that Iran came to the table to negotiate because the sanctions we put into place were hurting them. They had no money. Their currency was practically worthless. A restive young population was unhappy with its prospects for life. They couldn’t even have money to do basic things a government needs to do. With all of that, they still were the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. My thinking was that if they have no money, and they’re still the number one sponsor [of terrorism], imagine if they get as much as $150 billion? They’ll be awash in cash, and have so much money to do worse.
Hezbollah is their proxy. Certainly in Syria, it has affected the way the war has gone. There were a number of times when [Syrian President] Assad was on the ropes, and it looked like he’d be eliminated or thrown out of power. [But] Iran brought in Hezbollah, which fought on his side and helped him, then it was the Russians, with Russian air power in Syria to get at the Islamic State [ISIS] but really was trying to hurt the Free Syrian Army. So, I just think that Iran and Russia are playing negative roles.
•President Trump has called for a tougher line on Tehran, but also a better relationship with Moscow. Is it possible to achieve both?
-After I found out what I did about Russia’s attempted interference in the U.S. presidential election, I wouldn’t trust [Russian President] Putin as far as I could throw him. We should be wary of anything he says and does. It’s clear they attempted to subvert the election. Undermining American democracy is an extremely hostile act, the most hostile act. Our foreign policy has to be wary.
•It has been observed in Washington that numerous countries in the Middle East are coming together out of shared concern about Iran, its proxies, and other trans-state actors – and Saudi Arabia has been especially proactive in pushing back on Iran. What do you make of these trends?
-I would hope that the U.S. would continue its friendly ties with Saudi Arabia. I think it’s very important. I also think that the Sunni Muslim nations are finding out that they have a lot in common with Israel. When you look at the view of who’s really making trouble in the Middle East, I think both Sunni Arab countries and Israel would agree that Iran is at the center of all this trouble, and they have much more in common because of that than the disagreements. And I would hope the collaboration now being quietly behind the scenes can be brought into the open, because it’s important for those countries’ youth populations to see that the enemy is Iran, with its belligerent behavior – an enemy of any peace-loving nation.