September 24, 2020

Chairman Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on U.S. Policy in a Changing Middle East

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a full committee hearing on U.S. policy in a changing Middle East, with witness testimony from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams.

 Chairman Risch gave the following opening statement:

 “This hearing will come to order.

 “I thank our witnesses for appearing today to discuss recent events in the Middle East and the implications they have for United States policy, which are significant. 

 “Since the end of the second World War, the Middle East has been dominated by an intractable Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, however, much has changed. Former rivals have increasingly reached across the table to address the shared challenges posed by Iran, radical extremism, COVID-19, and struggling economies, and by other issues that they have. 

 “The regional dynamics have been further shaped by growing Chinese entanglement, Russian intervention, and regional responses to an expansionist Turkish foreign policy that is increasingly aligned with Russia.

 “The United States’ interests have not changed – namely, regional stability, preventing terrorist threats against the U.S., preserving stable international markets, and fostering governments that address the needs of their citizens.

 “The historic signing of the Abraham Accords is a defining moment – it cannot be more important than it was -- and has the potential to fundamentally improve the security, economic, and diplomatic environment in the Middle East. 

 “Israel took the important step of suspending plans to annex portions of the West Bank, which I hope will reinvigorate substantive engagement from the Palestinian people.

 “The Accords also have positive implications for Iran policy.  For years the Arab-Israeli conflict created regional discord that Iran used to press its advantage. Iran’s aggressive terrorist agenda has created this opportunity for Arab countries to publicly cooperate with Israel. It is my hope that other countries will normalize ties with Israel. Indeed, I’m not alone in this – much talk in this city of exactly that takes place every day.

 “Additionally, the Accords have clear ramifications for regional security. Any potential arms sales must continue Congressional consultations on meeting our obligation to retain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and satisfying the other requirements of the Arms Export Control Act.

 “Let me be clear, the signing of the Abraham Accords did not occur by happenstance. These events were enabled by the Trump Administration’s exit from the flawed JCPOA, its maximum pressure against the Iranian regime, and the clear signals the administration’s plan for Middle East peace sent to the region.

 “Anyone who suggests that the U.S. should re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran is misguided at best, as that would only serve to isolate our ally Israel, alienate our Gulf partners, and once again fund Iran’s terror activities. And, most importantly, conduct a weak-kneed retreat from the hard-fought gains that we have made, and telegraph to our enemies and allies alike a weakness sure to embolden Iran to move more aggressively to pursue its malign activities and thus, at the end of the day, hurt us badly. 

 “Our Iran policy must look forward. I applaud the re-imposition of sanctions and the executive order this week implementing CAATSA and authorizing sanctions against those who would transfer arms to Iran. Only continued economic and regional isolation have the potential to bring Iran to the negotiating table.

 “Turning to our counterterrorism efforts – we have broken the Islamic State’s grip on Iraq and Syria. According to our military commanders, success against the Islamic State has led to a reduction in U.S. troops resulting from our confidence in local forces’ ability to operate with reduced levels of U.S. support.

 “As the Department of Defense reduces its missions in the Middle East, it is incumbent on the State Department to build a lasting peace through disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts. These efforts, tied to necessary reforms to reduce corruption and improve governance will ensure lasting stability.    

 “In Syria, we continue to face one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes and major contributor to regional instability. As we impose sanctions on the Assad regime authorized by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, we must continue the diplomatic and UN processes toward a ceasefire, supporting the constitutional committee, and free and fair elections. We must not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration or open the door to Russian intervention and let the civil war rage unabated.  

 “In Lebanon, we see the results of a corrupt patronage system and broken political process that opens the door to deep Iranian influence.  Lebanon is a nation on the brink of collapse, yet remains an important link to regional stability. I remain skeptical of Lebanon’s ability to form a new government free from the corruption of its political allies.   

 “Across the Middle East, there are unique opportunities to improve the region. Through continued normalization efforts, linking economies, joining security efforts, and continued pressure on Iran, there are real possibilities that were unthinkable just a few short years ago, and maybe once in a generation opportunities.

 “I look forward to hearing our witnesses’ testimony on these and related matters.”

 These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.

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