- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2010

Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who will wield the gavel because of their victory in last week’s elections, will seek to hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on the implementation of sanctions against Iran, undercutting the president’s diplomatic efforts to stifle Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

An aide to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the Republican in line to chair the committee, said she would not comment ahead of the announcement about committee chairmanships expected later this month from the Republican leadership. “She wants to respect the process,” the aide said.

Yet congressional staff, think-tank scholars and lobbyists who deal with the committee told The Washington Times that they expect Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen to take what one Republican House staffer called a “very forceful approach” to oversight and legislation — especially on a handful of issues related to Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and China.

The staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Iran issue, and especially the implementation of new sanctions legislation, likely would be near the top of the committee’s agenda. Republicans had “hoped for hearings this fall,” the staffer said. “There is a long list of questions about how [the new sanctions] are being enforced.”

“That witness chair is going to be a very hot seat,” predicted one Democratic government official, who asked for anonymity.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act with overwhelming bipartisan support, expanding existing sanctions against Tehran to include gasoline sales and energy-sector technology.

“We can expect a very relentless and determined focus on holding the administration’s feet to the fire” on the implementation of the new law, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an advocacy group.

“There will be hearings” held by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and probably other committees, such as Government Oversight and Armed Services, too, Mr. Dubowitz predicted.

The Republican House staffer said Republicans would be “willing to call out the administration when we don’t feel the intent of the [Iran sanctions] legislation is being honored.”

A key issue, Mr. Dubowitz and the staffer said, would be how the administration uses its waiver power. The president can decide not to go after companies that breach the law if he decides that is in the national interest.

Under the chairmanship of Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had shown a “willingness to defer [to the administration] and a desire not to step on the feet” of a new Democratic president, said the Republican House staffer. As a result, the committee was not as “active … as many Republicans and some Democrats wanted.”

Mr. Berman “was a senior, very thoughtful, deliberative” lawmaker,” said Richard N. Sawaya of USA-Engage, a business lobby that advocates against unilateral U.S. sanctions. He called Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen “a person of settled opinions” and “very tough-minded.”

Others agreed that the committee’s stance likely would be more aggressive, especially on issues such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on which there was a degree of Democratic support for a more hawkish stand.

“Berman was a good chairman on balance, but he shied away from publicly challenging the Obama administration” on issues such as the negotiations, said Jason Epstein, an independent foreign-affairs consultant.

In contrast, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen “will continue to make those kinds of disagreements with the White House known to all,” said Mr. Epstein, a registered Republican.

The likely new stance by the committee troubles some supporters of the administration’s policy of pursuing multilateral sanctions and negotiations to force Iran to abandon what many think is a continuing effort to develop nuclear weapons capability.

Suzanne Maloney, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told The Times: “One of the difficulties with the rhetoric we’re already hearing from House Republicans is that it will revive fears” among countries that supported new U.S.-backed sanctions at the United Nations “that the ultimate objective [of U.S. Iran policy] is focused on force.”

Russia and China in particular, she said, are “alarmed by the drumbeat of war” from some lawmakers, and moves to force the administration’s hand on unilateral sanctions could undermine the president’s diplomatic efforts.

“If they get the idea that the administration does not have the final word on Iran policy, it is going to get very difficult to deal with our allies,” she said.

Others, however, were more sanguine about the president’s prospects. “It is useful for the administration to have Congress play the bad cop” in its dealings on Iran, Mr. Dubowitz said.

Kenneth G. Lieberthal, another Brooking Institution scholar, said President Obama’s credibility with leaders abroad could be undercut by gridlock over domestic issues such as entitlement spending, the deficit and taxation.

“His capacity to handle the domestic situation is going to profoundly influence people’s judgment about our capacity to engage around the world,” Mr. Lieberthal said.

The changed atmospherics on Capitol Hill — where Republicans will control the House and a large number of Democratic senators face election battles in 2012 — in the years leading up to a presidential contest also might make it harder for the administration to sell at home any deal it might make with Iran, Ms. Maloney said.

“If they get very lucky and all the stars align,” she said, “How do you sell a deal on the nuclear issue that doesn’t ‘neuter’ — to use Sen. [Lindsey] Graham’s term — Tehran?”

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