Hawks critical of the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran over the past eight years were in a distinctly upbeat mood as they took over an ornate Senate caucus room Thursday to promote their cause. The incoming Trump administration, many said, understands their case and the threat posed by the regime in Tehran far better than President Obama ever did.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, a longtime member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, were among the lawmakers saying Mr. Trump and the team he is assembling will clearly be more skeptical of Iran and ready to call out any violations of the multinational nuclear deal Mr. Obama helped negotiate in 2015.
“There is every reason to believe and be hopeful that the president-elect will take a new set of eyes and a new approach to this theocracy. I’m very hopeful that will happen,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security, told the briefing on the policy options on Iran held in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Mr. McCain said he was heartened by Mr. Trump’s choice of James N. Mattis to head the Defense Department, saying the retired Marine general was deeply familiar with the threat posed by Tehran to the U.S. and its regional allies. Gen. Mattis has criticized the Iran nuclear deal as “imperfect” and said in an April speech that “the Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
“I don’t know, frankly, what Donald Trump wants to do [about Iran], but I do know the people he has selected so far for major positions I’ve been very pleased to see,” the Arizona Republican said.
The Capitol Hill event itself, put together by the Organization of Iranian American Communities,* marked another step in the remarkable evolution for one of the major sponsors of the event, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran and the NCRI’s largest component, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedeen of Iran), or MEK.
A fierce opponent of the Islamic republic regime in Tehran and a source of many of the intelligence scoops detailing Tehran’s clandestine nuclear programs, the secular coalition broke with other elements of the coalition that toppled the Shah of Iran in the 1979 revolution, and has operated in exile ever since.
The MEK was placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in the mid-1990s but, backed by a growing number of supporters on Capitol Hill, was removed from the list in 2012. MEK officials say they have renounced violence but remain committed to the peaceful overthrow of the theocratic regime in Tehran in favor of a new secular, democratic government.
Camp Liberty resolved
The group was buoyed this year by the end of a long stalemate over Camp Liberty, a onetime U.S. military base in Iraq that became a holding post for over 3,000 MEK members, held there by the Iraqi government and constantly criticized by Iranian authorities. The last of those detained at the camp left Iraq this fall, many having been taken in by the government of Albania.
Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic candidate for vice president, told Thursday’s gathering that he voted for Hillary Clinton last month but that Mr. Trump’s surprise election, coupled with strong congressional majorities critical of the Iranian regime, could mean a major change in Iranian policy in the months ahead.
“I really think a new day is dawning for the cause of a free, stable, independent and democratic Iran,” said Mr. Lieberman, who noted the resolution of the Camp Liberty standoff means the NCRI “can focus on resistance and changing the regime” in Iran.
“Elections have consequences,” Mr. Lieberman said. “I can tell you, when it comes to Iran, the change from Barack Obama to Donald Trump is a very hopeful one. Now we go to an administration that is not protective or defensive of the Iran agreement, but is ready to challenge it.”
Mr. Trump has been sharply critical of the deal — and the tens of billions of dollars in frozen and sanctioned funds returned to Iran — but has been unclear on whether he would scrap it unilaterally or take a far more aggressive approach to enforcing it and calling out Iranian violations. Many of the other signatories to the deal, including Russia, China, Germany and France, have been actively exploring new commercial opportunities with Iran, in the energy sector and beyond.
For its part, Iran has stepped up its warnings against any move by the Trump administration to torpedo the nuclear deal and the lifting of international sanctions Iran demanded as part of the agreement.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, considered a relative “moderate” on the Iranian political spectrum, said just this week Mr. Trump “may wish many things, he may wish to weaken or tear up [the nuclear deal], but will we and our nation allow such a thing? America cannot influence our path of strength and endurance.”
But Mr. McCain and other critics of the deal say Iran has already violated both the letter and the spirit of the deal, with little sign that Tehran has modified its policies or stopped sowing instability in regional hot spots from Syria to Yemen.
Mr. Lieberman said Mr. Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress could take a number of steps to check Iran’s aggressiveness short of tearing up the nuclear deal, including new unilateral sanctions and designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military unit specifically charged with defending the country’s Islamic theocratic system, as a terrorist organization. The sanctions could hurt, because the IRGC has built up a major business empire in addition to its military operations.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the organizer of the event. The Organization of Iranian American Communities sponsored the luncheon.