In a hearing at the U.S. Congress' Subcommittee on the Middle East Policy on October 30, the democrats criticized President Donald Trump’s policy in the region, saying Iran has become more powerful and expanded its influence during this administration.
The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Ted Deutch D-Florida in his opening remarks said, “While the administration counts its maximum pressure policy, Iran continues to destabilize” the region. “Despite bellicose rhetoric, Iran has attacked regional shipping, undermined U.S. credibility in the process”, he added.
The administration was represented by David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs who responded that the president’s $6.6 billion budget request for the region “will support priorities to counter Iran’s influence and ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS”.
Schenker added, “Strong diplomatic, economic and skirting measures must be bolstered by U.S. assistance programs that seek to deny access and influence to Iran” proxy-building efforts.
Schenker did not present any details of how the foreign aid money will be spent, or if any major changes have been proposed amounting to new initiatives in countering Iranian influence.
Deutch then asked Schenker if there are any talks on exchanging prisoners with Iran. The Assistant Secretary replied that there are no American prisoners in Iran, rather, there are hostages held by Iran. Iranians who are prisoners in the West are people who have engaged in “illegal” activities.
Congressman Deutch followed up, directly asking if there are any talks. Schenker refused to give a direct answer, saying, “I am not going to get into those details here. What I would say is that it is a priority for us to get our people back.” However, he added that paying to get hostages back will encourage the perpetrator.
The ranking republican member of the subcommittee, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina followed up on Iran asking Schenker what the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs does to counter Iranian influence.
Schenker responded by recounting sanctions on Iran’s oil exports saying that by eliminating “$50 billion” in oil revenue, Iran’s economy will have “double-digit” contraction until the end of the year and Tehran will have less money to fund” regional proxies, terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah, which are facing lack of funds”.
He then recounted current coalition-building efforts and steps taken to expose Iran’s role in attacking Saudi oil facilities and the regime’s “brutality and governance problems”.
Rep. Wilson then asked if the State Department can assure no U.S. funds are going to Iraqi police that will benefit Iranian-backed militias. Schenker responded that no funds from Foreign Military Financing (FMF) are “directly going to Hashed al Shaabi”, but he was less certain about any other facility benefiting Iran's proxies in Iraq.
Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas questioned the administration’s Middle East policy, saying that while the president has said he wants to defend Israel, he has taken many steps “that have empowered Iran”. Allred also questioned why foreign aid is being cut, given priorities listed. Schenker responded that as foreign aid to Syria has been cut, the U.S. has succeeded in convincing regional allies to step in to fill the gap. But Allred insisted he disagrees with the reduced budget request, as relying on funding by allies is not a long-term solution.
Representative Steve Chabot, R-Ohio expressed concern over Iran’s expanding influence toward the Mediterranean, which can endanger Israel.
Schenker responded that the issue is “of enormous concern to the administration”, saying that before the Turkish incursion into Syria, the presence of U.S. troops in the Kurdish region “had limited Iran’s ability to do everything it wanted”. He underlined that continued U.S. presence in the region is important to “limit Iran’s ability somewhat”. He also added that “the weak link has been Iraq, more than Syria”, as “Iran has been storing ballistic missile in Iraq”.
Congressman Deutch at the end of the hearing pressed Schenker, if the the residual presence of U.S. troops in Syria was enough to prevent Iran’s effort to build a land bridge to Lebanon. Schenker responded that it “plays a positive role”.