US Congressman Eliot Engel on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria

Here’s the English-language text of my interview with Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, published in the April 2014 edition of Al-Majalla. (Link here.)

Elliot Engel to Al-Majalla: Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the region, and it is essential to strengthen relations between Riyadh and Washington

The United States Congressman asserted that the Syrian people deserve better, and foreign “jihadists” represent a serious threat to the United States and its allies.

Congressman Eliot Engel represents the 16th district of New York, and is the Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. An architect of United States sanctions on Iran, he has recently introduced the “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act” with his colleague Ed Royce. The bill would broaden economic sanctions on Tehran, as well as increase oversight and enforcement of existing sanctions, while the negotiations over its nuclear program continue. Though a member of the Democratic party, Engel has been critical of the Middle East policies of the current Democrat-led White House, particularly with respect to Iran and Syria. Engel was born into a humble working-class background. Asharq Alawsat met with him at his office in Washington.

Q: What are your expectations on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia?

A: I’m very happy that the President is going to Saudi Arabia. The relationship needs to be nurtured — and I’m sympathetic to some of the Saudi admonitions that the US sometimes seems to not be as engaged in the region as much as we should. I think that’s correct. I think our relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are very important, and I think there has been some ruffled feathers, and a feeling that the United States is pulling back. I think the president needs to reaffirm that the United States is engaged in the MIddle East. The role Saudi Arabia plays in the region is very important. Here in Washington, I have on numerous occasions met with the Saudi ambassador, and we always have very good meetings, and we share similar concerns and ideas.

Q: Amid hopes for a negotiated settlement with Tehran over its nuclear program, some American policymakers view Iranian president Hasan Rouhani as a “moderate.” What’s your view?

A: That’s ridiculous, and Rouhani in my opinion is not a moderate. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is the final arbiter, and before the last Iranian elections he disqualified all the moderates. What brought Iran to the negotiating table was sanctions, which placed their economy in shambles.

Q: You’ve been a strong proponent of maintaining financial pressure on Tehran while negotiations continue over its nuclear program. What is the state of Congressional efforts to reimpose sanctions on the regime?

A: We passed last summer in the House the Royce-Engel Bill, which slapped the strongest sanctions on Iran yet. The Senate unfortunately did not follow suit, and it was only when these negotiations with Iran –the P5+1 — were taking place, that we started hearing some rumblings from the Senate about a different sanctions bill. First we heard about immediate sanctions, then we heard about a delayed sanctions bill that would kick in six months later if Iran didn’t negotiate an agreement in good faith. But unfortunately, the Administration is opposed to that as well.

Q: In the meantime, how do you see the negotiations proceeding?

A: My main problem with these negotiations — although I support them and I hope they work — is that Iran continues to enrich while we’re talking with them. I think it would not have been too much to say to the Iranians, “While we’re talking, you stop enriching.” If the whole purpose of the talk is that in the end, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon, then why are we allowing them to enrich while we’re talking? They lied about their program being for peaceful purposes. That’s a lie and we all know it’s a lie, and I don’t think we can believe what they say.

Q: Are you hopeful that the negotiations with Iran will somehow bring an end to Iranian interference in the Gulf and support for Hezbollah and Hamas?

A: Unfortunately, I think the chance of that is about zero. That’s also what bothers me about this. We’re negotiating with Iran on their nuclear program, and Iran is carrying out business as usual. They’re sending Hezbollah into Syria, and Hezbollah has turned the tide in the civil war in favor of Assad. They continue to make mischief wherever they can, and at same time we’re negotiating with them. It seems to me that these things are tied in to one another. It’s as if we’ve put blindfolds on and said to Iran, “We’re going to forget about all the mischief you’re causing, like being the world’s leading supporter of terrorism and turning the tide in favor of Assad.” I think it sends a bad message to them. It bothers me.

Q: Please rate the outcome of September’s UN-brokered agreement for the disarmament of chemical weapons in Syria.

I’m told that only 11 percent of the weapons have been destroyed. Meanwhile, Assad is still making war on his own people, with barrel bombs that either kill them or cut them up if they’re not killed; using starvation as a weapon of war; and of course gassing his people. The world should not just wring its hands and say that they can’t do anything. It’s not easy, but we can do something and we should do something — first, because the Syrian people deserve better; second, because the humanitarian crisis threatens to destabilize Jordan through the inflow of refugees; and third, because foreign jihadists exploiting lawless sections of Syria represent an existential threat to the US and its allies.

Q: Some Americans argue that military aid to Syrian rebels can no longer lead to a desirable outcome. Do you agree — and what are your prescriptions?

A: When I introduced my bill over a year ago, I was convinced that if we provided aid to the Free Syrian Army, they would become the preeminent people fighting in the war. Now the worry is that if you intervene in Syria and you help the people fighting Assad, you may be inadvertently giving weapons to the jihadists. But after speaking with the king of Jordan and others, I think the Free Syrian Army in the southern part of Syria can still be helped, and I think we have to find a way of doing it. I don’t support US boots on the ground, but I would support the possible use of targeted air strikes to weaken Assad and to let the Iranians know that we’re not going to sit idly by.

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