WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening statement at this morning’s full committee hearing entitled: “U.S. Policy in a Changing Middle East.” Testifying before the committee were Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams. 

“Today’s hearing implies a Middle East changing for the better for U.S. interests and values. And in some ways that is true,”Ranking Member Menendez said, commending the administration for building on years of cooperation between Israel and some of its Arab Gulf neighbors. “But while we should celebrate these historical achievements, let’s not overlook the fact that Israel’s core security issues remain unresolved, and it is still contending with threats from Hamas and Hezbollah nearly on a daily basis. 

Ranking Member Menendez also raised concerns over the Trump administration’s ability to confront Iran’s growing defense capabilities and support for malign proxy actors throughout the region.

“To be clear, I bear no sentimentality about the JCPOA. But as one who has worked for decades helping to build a careful, calibrated, critically, and internationally supported sanctions regime to constrain Iran, I am seriously concerned that this administration has completely lost sight of how to achieve even its own goals, let alone safeguard our nation’s security,”Ranking Member Menendez added. “The executive order announced Monday could have been executed months ago and will likely have no tangible impact on Iran’s capacities. These announcements are simply a hollow echo of American leadership that once held commanding convening power and unquestioned global leadership, replacing it with a policy that seems to amount to: Talk loudly and carry no sticks.”

Below are Ranking Member Menendez’s full remarks as delivered:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing, and thank you to our witnesses, both of whom have spent decades in service to this country. The scope of this hearing could keep us here for days: Israel’s changing diplomatic fortunes; Lebanon reeling with decades of malfeasance and a deadly explosion; Yemen facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. But I’ll do my best to stay focused.

While we’ve seen some recent positive developments over the course of the past four years; however, the Trump administration has only served to create more chaos and uncertainty about our policies in the Middle East: showering autocrats with praise and, at least according to the President, “saving” one “from Congress” in the wake of ordering the slaughter of an American resident; drawing down and now redeploying troops to Syria; and prioritizing arms sales and unilateral sanctions over the hard work of diligent diplomacy and strategic development.  

Today’s hearing implies a Middle East changing for the better for U.S. interests and values. And in some ways that is true. I applaud the administration for building on years of cooperation between Israel and some of its Arab Gulf neighbors. I think we can all agree that more regional cooperation serves the interests of all the people in the region, and of the U.S. as well. But while we should celebrate these historical achievements, let’s not overlook the fact that Israel’s core security issues remain unresolved, and it is still contending with threats from Hamas and Hezbollah nearly on a daily basis. 

Indeed, we have a responsibility to look beyond the headlines and into the details, particularly when it comes to peace declarations that come with the expectation – and perhaps even the promise - of significant arms sales.

Let me be clear: Congress’ role in arms sales is not something that I see changing any time soon. To any country. In any region.

And while some things change, others stay the same, and in some cases get worse. 

And in fact, Mr. Chairman, I think there can be little doubt that with Iran we are worse off now than we were four years ago. 

Now, to be clear, I bear no sentimentality about the JCPOA, but as one who has worked for decades helping to build a careful, calibrated, critically, and internationally supported sanctions regime to constrain Iran, I am seriously concerned that this administration has completely lost sight of how to achieve even its own goals, let alone safeguard our national security.

Over the past four years, Iran has increased its enrichment level and stockpile of enriched uranium as well as advanced missile systems. It has continued its support for malign proxy actors throughout the region. Even in the wake of the killing of Qasem Soleimani and a declaration of “deterrence restored” against Iran, CENTCOM Commander General McKenzie said recently that the “level of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq from Iran-backed militias have been higher.” Is this your definition of deterrence restored? 

This administration refuses to acknowledge what those of us who have worked this file know: 

We cannot confront Iran alone. Indeed, we cannot achieve any of our policy goals in the Middle East or elsewhere alone.

But this administration has so alienated our allies and partners that Russia and China didn’t even need to use their vetoes at the UN Security Council, where the U.S. embarrassingly could muster only one vote in support of reimposing the arms embargo against Iran. How can you honestly say that in this context sanctions have been “snapped back” when our European allies and the Secretary General himself questions the legitimacy of U.S. claims? 

While the Secretary rails against our historical partners, China and Russia are increasing their influence not just in the region economically and militarily, but at international fora as well, where previous administrations have been effective in advancing our nation’s interests.  

The executive order announced Monday could have been executed months ago and will likely have no tangible impact on Iran’s capacities. These announcements are simply a hollow echo of American leadership that once held commanding convening power and unquestioned global leadership, replacing it with a policy that seems to amount to: Talk loudly and carry no sticks. 

So while I intend to drill down some more during questions, I hope that you all can provide some level of explanation as to how it is you believe you are actually achieving your goals in the Middle East. And perhaps, you can even shed light onto exactly what those are.” 

 

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