Though the world’s attention is on Ukraine, it will not distract from efforts in Washington to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, said US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who are leading AIPAC delegations to Israel this week.
Senator Robert Menendez said at an AIPAC event last week that he is “not comfortable” with the lack of attention on Iran, and he is “not sure that [his] colleagues are as fully immersed on the challenges of Iran as we speak, as [he] would like them to be.”
Yet Hoyer said that “Congress can do a number of things at the same time. I understand what Senator Menendez is saying... but I think there is no doubt people are paying attention to [Iran talks] in the House, notwithstanding Ukraine. I think the Iran deal is very much on the mind of the members.”
Hoyer added that “the president has handled this properly, and the world, the UN and Israel have responded properly to what is a violation of international law by the Russians.”
In a separate interview, McCarthy similarly said that the Iran talks are not falling under the radar, “not in Congress, not with Republicans in Congress.”
However, “the way America pulled out of Afghanistan showed weakness. Allowing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to have the [Nordstream 2] pipeline showed weakness. That is why Putin is behaving the way he did this week in Ukraine.”
Russian aggression against Ukraine “should wake the world up,” McCarthy said. “Iran, Russia, China and North Korea working together is not a world that brings more prosperity and security for America and Israel.”
A senior Israeli diplomatic source said on Thursday that Israel does not see any linkage between Russia-Ukraine and the Iran nuclear talks, other than detracting attention.
Another diplomatic source said Washington tells Israel that they “can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Hoyer and McCarthy were in Israel this week leading separate delegations of over 40 members of Congress from their parties. Their agenda included meetings with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Iran was a major topic of discussion in the meetings.
Republicans “have been very vocal and uniform in making sure Iran never has the opportunity to get a nuclear weapon,” McCarthy said. “We are continuing to talk about the JCPOA agreement with Iran, and our concerns about the negotiations going on now. We did not agree with returning to the talks... We should never allow Iran to have the capacity to have a nuclear weapon, which is why I opposed the original agreement.”
Hoyer said that the US is “absolutely committed to no nuclear Iran, period. That’s our policy, Congress shares that view, as does the president of the United States – the present one, the previous one and the one before that.”
However, he added, “we do have differences of opinion on whether returning to the JCPOA... is in the best interests of the security of the region and of Israel.” The disagreements were “respectfully made by the Israeli coalition.”
Israel’s claim that Iran is demanding that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations did not come up in the meetings, Hoyer said.
“I would be surprised if any agreement... would remove IRGC from the terrorist list in our country, until such a time as the IRGC stops supporting terrorist activity in the region, in particular, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis,” said Hoyer.
McCarthy said Republicans would strongly oppose any proposal to delist the IRGC: “We know that’s where the terrorists come from and where their affiliates get their funds.”
As for whether an Iran deal would need to undergo Congressional review, Hoyer said that despite the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which “requires an agreement to be submitted, the administration argues that if there are no substantial changes when they re-up the agreement, it does not need to be submitted. Otherwise, they may have to be pursuant to the law.”
Hoyer added that he discussed the matter with US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides.
McCarthy noted that Republicans sent a letter to US President Joe Biden asking for greater transparency in the talks.
“It is of real concern to me that we are not able to see what the negotiations are right now,” he said. “Watching decisions made recently with Afghanistan, Russia... it’s concerning for me, what’s happening with Iran.”
Both leaders sought to highlight the importance of bipartisan support for Israel in the US.
“I always want Israel to have a bipartisan relationship with America, and I am working closely with Steny to make sure it happens,” McCarthy said.
But he lamented “members of the Democratic Party with a different philosophy,” highlighting the progressive Democrats who voted against the funding of the Iron Dome missile defense system last year.
The leaders said they saw great importance in bringing members of Congress to see Israel firsthand. The delegations traveled to Israel’s south to see communities targeted by Hamas rockets and protected by the Iron Dome missile defense system, funding for which was put to a vote last year that garnered a lot of attention.
“Republicans don’t ever want Israel to be a partisan issue,” McCarthy said. “We want to work together. Unfortunately, some Democrats seem to want to make it more partisan... Not all Democrats want to continue to keep support bipartisan.”
Hoyer pointed out that the Iron Dome funding was approved with 420 in favor and nine opposed, eight of which were Democrats who voted against it. Another vote on a resolution condemning the anti-Israel BDS movement passed with 398 in favor and 17 opposed.
“That’s overwhelming support,” Hoyer said. “The Democratic Party and President Biden are very committed to Israel’s security and sovereignty and safety.”
Hoyer lamented that “people read the press and see a Democrat who has reservations about an issue and they extrapolate that to the Democratic Party as weakening support, but the votes belie that very, very substantially. There is strong bipartisan support.”
The House majority leader said that “bipartisanship was undermined... when prime minister Netanyahu came and gave a speech [in 2015] at the invitation of [former] Speaker [John] Boehner on the Iranian JCPOA, which was perceived by Democrats as a partisan act, disrespecting the president of the United States, who was a Democrat.”
Now, Hoyer said, Bennett and Lapid, who he called a friend, “say, ‘look we’re going to have disagreements, but that does not mean we have partisan disagreements, nor will we try to undermine the president.’ They have done that pretty assiduously, and I have great respect for that approach.”
The diverse makeup of Israel’s current governing coalition shows Bennett and Lapid’s ability to work productively with people even when they disagree, Hoyer said.
Hoyer referred to the government as a “Team of Rivals,” the title of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Abraham Lincoln by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“They accentuated what can be done as opposed to what can’t be done,” Hoyer said. “It’s a good lesson to all of us around the world.”