Congressman Berman's Speech

September 1, 2002

Dear Friends:

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today.  Although a scheduling conflict prevents me from joining you in person, I am writing to let you know that I stand with you in your struggle to establish Human Rights in Iran and that as a Member of Congress and a member of the International Relations Committee I will do everything I can to help further this goal.

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the massacres of Iranian political prisoners in the summer of 1988.  Shamefully, 14 years later Iran still has a dismal record on human rights. Journalists are routinely jailed, dozens of newspapers have been shut down, religious minorities are persecuted, and opposition leaders beaten or killed for expressing their views.

The  Iranian people are trapped in a system that prevents them from realizing their aspirations for freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Even in an electoral system controlled and manipulated by the “Supreme Leader” and his cronies, the vast majority of the people have made it abundantly clear, time and time again, that they want real change. Yet their voices have been ignored by the unelected, corrupt elite that maintains an iron grip on the security forces, intelligence services, the judiciary and other levers of power. 

This  hard-line regime has pursued a range of policies that threaten the national security interests of the U.S. and our allies. For example, they actively support Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups dedicated to the destruction of Israel and capable of carrying out attacks against the U.S.

There is evidence that Iran is trying to engineer closer cooperation between Hezbollah and Hamas in terrorist operations against Israel. Late last year, with the assistance of Hezbollah, they tried to smuggle 50 tons of offensive weapons to the Palestinian Authority. They have attempted to undermine the Middle East peace process at every turn, even hosting “summits” for radical Palestinian rejections groups. 

 While Iran shared our goal of eliminating the Taliban regime, albeit for reasons of their own, there is evidence that they have allowed safe passage for al-Qaeda fighters and provided assistance to Afghan warlords intent on destabilizing the Karzai government. There is also strong evidence linking the regime to the Khobar Towers bombing in  Dharan, Saudi Arabia which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, and the bombing of a Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that resulted in 85 deaths.

These and other terrorist activities have led the State Department to designate Iran as the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism. In addition, Iran is actively pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.  The CIA estimates that Iran will have nuclear weapons in  seven years, while Israeli intelligence estimates that they will achieve this capability in less than five.  In either case, this is a very troubling development.

 Iran already has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and is aggressively developing long-range missiles capable of hitting Europe, and eventually the U.S.  Furthermore, given the regime’s horrendous human rights record, there is no telling whether they would turn this technology against their own people.

 I think we can all agree that the Iranian regime’s conduct is reprehensible and fails to serve the interests of the Iranian people. The question is, what should we do about it?  What is the best way to change the regime’s behavior?

 The Europeans’ answer is to pursue a policy of  “constructive engagement,” sometimes referred to as “critical dialogue”. They believe that by engaging with Iran on many different levels – economic, political, and cultural – they can moderate the regime’s behavior.  Since this policy was initiated in the mid-1990’s, European officials have met periodically with their Iranian counterparts to discuss various issues and express their “concerns” about Iranian conduct. Just recently, the Europeans decided to deepen their relationship with Iran by authorizing the negotiation of an EU-Iran trade and cooperation agreement.

 In theory, constructive engagement sounds appealing.  But in practice, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that it’s had any impact on Iranian behavior. When the Europeans launched their engagement policy, Iran was a major state sponsor of terrorism.  The same remains true today. When the engagement policy began, Iran was aggressively developing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.  Nothing has changed, except they are closer to meeting their goals.

 When the engagement policy began, Iran was a major human rights abuser.  This continues to be true today. As long as the hard-liners remain in control, there is no reason to believe that we’re going to see positive change in any of these areas. In contrast to the Europeans, the U.S. has pursued a policy of containment.

 

Our goal to isolate the regime, cut it off from the sources of capital and technology that will allow it to devote even more resources to destructive ends.  This policy also has limitations.  Our allies have pursued a different approach, thus undercutting the effectiveness of our policy.  At times, our own administrations have subordinated our policy to economic and allied pressures. 

It is true that we have not deterred the Iranian regime from continuing their weapons programs, nor have we been completely successful in convincing other countries, especially Russia, from providing assistance for these programs. Nor have we prevented Iran from supporting terrorists or violating human rights.  But taken together, our sanctions have made it more difficult and costly for the regime to do bad things.

 One example is ILSA, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which Congress reauthorized last year through the year 2006.  Opponents of the legislation point to the recent oil and gas deals signed by foreign firms as a sign that the law isn’t working. But I and other proponents of ILSA were never under the illusion that it would deter all foreign investment in Iran’s aging oil and gas sector. We simply argued that it would help deprive the regime of some hard currency that it could use to support terrorism and WMD. And on that score I think there is some evidence, at least early on, that it had the desired effect.  According to the best figures I’ve seen, from 1996 to 2001, Iran promoted over 50 energy investment opportunities.  Yet only seven contracts were signed in that period, involving less than ten billion dollars. Moreover, there is a difference between the signing of contracts and the actual investment of funds.

 In a 1998 report to the U.N., the Iranian government acknowledged that ILSA deterred foreign investment, stating that the law had “led to the disruption of the country’s economic system...and caused a decline in its gross national product.” We will never know for sure how successful ILSA could be unless the Administration enforces the law, which they have failed to do.

 Congress has also tried to stem Iranian proliferation with the Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act and the Iran Nonproliferation Act. The Clinton and Bush administrations have used these laws to impose sanctions on entities from China, Russia and other countries that have transferred advanced conventional weapons and WMD technology to Iran.

I don’t believe our policy of containment should preclude us from talking to Iranian officials, especially individuals that do not support the regime’s most extreme and destructive policies. There is no reason we should treat Iran differently than the Palestinians or North Koreans. In fact, it is longstanding U.S. policy that we will talk to the Iranians anytime, anywhere, on any subject, with no preconditions. So far, they have not taken us up on our offer.

 But the focus should not be on talking.  Talk is cheap.  It must be on action.  This is the bottom line:  If the Iranian regime is willing to end its support for terrorism and abandon its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, then there will be a real basis for improving the bilateral relationship.  If they are not prepared to take these steps, then we have no choice but to continue our policy of containment, and intensify our efforts – so far unsuccessful -- to convince the Europeans that constructive engagement is a dead end. While I can’t speak for my House colleagues, I think it’s safe to say that my views are held by many others.

 As you know, Congress tends to be very supportive of Israel.  And Israel is very, very concerned about the threat posed by Iran.  I think it’s clear they have good reason to be. Israeli officials at all levels and from all political parties raise Iran at every opportunity with Congress and the Administration.  As long as Iran is supporting groups that target Israeli civilians and building weapons that threaten Israel’s existence, I don’t think this is going to change.  For supporters of Israel, the seizure of the Karine A arms ship was also a watershed event that adds an alarming Iranian dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 Finally, the atmosphere is different in Congress after September 11.  Terrorism is no longer an abstract issue, but a real, tangible threat. And while there is no evidence to suggest that Iran was complicit in the attacks, there is mounting evidence that al-Qaeda has begun to coordinate with other terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, which receives direct support from Iran. Of course, Iran also supports and harbors a host of other terrorist organizations.

So where do we go from here?  As I mentioned before, I am not opposed in principle to contacts with reformist officials that share our desire for peace and stability in the region. But it isn’t clear to me how talking to these people would strengthen their position relative to the hardliners and lead to any positive change.  It may even be counterproductive, since anyone who expresses an interest in working with us will inevitably be branded an American “stooge”.

In addition, I’m not completely sure who the genuine “reformists” are.  When Khatami and his “reformist” allies were first elected in 1997, many of us hoped that we would see real changes in Iranian behavior.  When those changes didn’t come, the experts told us that he was really trying, but his reform program was completely stymied by the hardliners. Now, five years later, and still no change in sight, some question whether Khatami is a real reformer after all, or simply a creature of the hard-line regime. 

I’m not sure I fully subscribe to this latter view, but especially in the realm of foreign and defense policy – including support for terrorism and the development of WMD – I haven’t detected any real differences between the reformists and the hardliners.  Indeed, Khatami himself has spoken to terrorist groups and repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel.  Whatever the reality of the political situation in Iran, all indications are that tensions in the country are rising and may be nearing the boiling point. 

Those who have repeatedly voted for change, including many young people not old enough to remember the revolution, are increasingly frustrated at the lack of social change and the deteriorating economy five years after the “reformists” were elevated to power.  This growing unrest has led to some divisions among the Mullahs, with a small minority advocating greater accommodation of certain domestic reforms to alleviate popular discontent. 

One prominent conservative cleric recently remarked that Iranian “society is on the threshold of an explosion.”  As an alternative to getting sucked into the byzantine power struggles of the Iranian elite, I think the President is right to focus on expanding contacts with the Iranian people, and encouraging change from the bottom up rather than the top down.  When the people of Iran finally take power, I want them to remember that America stood with them. 

In this, we can learn some lessons from our experience with the Palestinians.  We focused so much on the Peace process and in signed agreements between officials that we neglected the real basis for peace – the attitudes of average people, or as the Arabs like to call it, “the street.” While political leadership is crucial, I’ve always believed that people to people interactions and the free exchange of ideas can play an important part in bringing about positive change.   In the case of Iran, I would like to see greater travel and cultural exchanges.   

Unlike Cuba, the Iranian trade embargo does not prohibit Americans from traveling to Iran.  As long as conditions are safe, I hope Americans will take the opportunity to learn about Iran’s rich history, and to the greatest extent possible, interact with average Iranians. Unfortunately, despite Khatami’s talk of a “dialogue of civilizations,” it’s my understanding that Iran is issuing very few visas to Americans. 

More than ten years ago I passed an amendment that exempts informational and cultural materials from economic embargoes.  So, in addition to imports of caviar, pistachios and rugs, Americans are free to exchange goods that fall into these categories with Iranian citizens.  We should make better use of this law. 

A third way to communicate directly with the Iranian people is through broadcasting and other forms of public diplomacy.  The House recently passed a bill to enhance our public diplomacy programs, including an amendment I offered that would, among other things, fund satellite television in Farsi for Iran.  We can use these expanded broadcasts to explain U.S. policies to the Iranian people as well as inform them about their own government’s irresponsible behavior.   

Finally, to the greatest extent possible, we should try to expand our efforts to promote civil society in Iran through the National Endowment for Democracy or other organizations.  These are modest proposals, and I am under no illusion that they will be easy to implement. But we have to start somewhere. 

I have a vision of a new Middle East:  Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace, a democratic Iraq freed from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, and a democratic and peaceful Iran where the will of the people reigns. In this Middle East, we would see religious tolerance, economic prosperity, free expression, respect for the rights of women and the rule of law.  A fantasy?  Maybe in my lifetime.  But then again, maybe not. 

 One thing is certain:  For this vision to become a reality, the Iranian people will have to play a leading role. Once they are liberated from the oppressive regime that prevents them from realizing their full potential, I have no doubt they will be up to the task.

 The Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran is helping set the stage to make this liberation possible by highlighting the truth the about the current regime and its crimes, remembering the victims of these crimes, and urging the western world to isolate and disengage from the Iranian government while at the same time connecting with the people of Iran and their struggle.

Your efforts make a difference.  Thank you.

Sincerel

HOWARD L. BERMAN

Member of Congress

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