Clinton warns of Iranian efforts to fill ME power vacuum

US sec. of state says Obama needs to maintain aid and involvement in region to keep Tehran from succeeding.

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Tuesday that Iran was aggressively trying to take advantage of the domestic upheavals across the Arab world, and warned that the United States needed to maintain robust aid and involvement in the region to keep Tehran from succeeding.
Clinton described Iran as working “every single day with as many assets as they can muster, trying to take hold of this legitimate movement for democracy,” in testimony before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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“There’s no doubt in my mind if we are not present, and present in resources, not just in rhetoric, not just saying what we’re for but being able to deliver on that, others will fill that vacuum,” cautioned Clinton.
“We are in a competition. I just stress over and over again, we’ve got to be there. We’ve got to fight back.”
Clinton was appearing before Congress to defend the $47 billion in foreign aid and operations funding the Obama administration has requested for 2012, a budget Republicans would like to cut sharply.
Clinton also indicated that the US was trying to take the initiative in ensuring that the implementation of more democratic governments would not be exploited by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
“We are trying to suggest certain guidelines that should be used for determining whether a political party or any organization should be included in elections, included in government,” she noted, adding that when it came to whether the Muslim Brotherhood could abide by democratic institutions, “the jury is out.”
In addition, Clinton indicated that the US would be taking a tougher tone on Iran and its human rights abuses against domestic opponents of the current regime.
“We have to go chapter and verse about everything that Iran is doing that abuses the rights of their own people and exposes their hypocrisy as they try to somehow identify with the legitimate aspirations for democracy and human rights in this region,” she stressed, noting that in the past, the administration had “modulated” its message because Iran would “basically paint anybody who opposed them as American stooges.”
Given the recent developments, she said, that point would appear to be moot.
Clinton also underscored that the US remained committed to ratcheting up the pressure of sanctions against Iran, “constantly looking to improve them, to strengthen them, to tighten them.”
Yet members of Congress chastised the administration for not doing enough to impose sanctions on foreign companies, as was enabled by legislation passed last summer.
“We have not yet sanctioned any non- Iranian bank or energy company, even though we know several are engaged in sanctionable activities,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Howard Berman told Clinton. “Companies need to know that there are consequences for these types of activities. So far, no company has any reason to think there are such consequences.”
Berman also asked whether the US would be able to continue its efforts to press for peace between Israelis and Palestinians despite the uncertainty in the region, and Clinton answered that it remained a priority.
“Our work continues,” she said, adding that in the changed landscape, “we believe that there’s an opportunity for Israel.”
She referred to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent acknowledgement of the isolation Israel faces.
“That’s not good for Israel,” she said. “I know that the prime minister recognizes that we have some very tough choices ahead.”
She said that when it came to Israel’s choice of whether to pursue a peace process with Syria, “we would support anything that Israel would decide is in Israel’s best interests when dealing with Syria.”
Clinton also weighed in on the notion of a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas, saying that if the latter “does not renounce violence, does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, does not agree to support previous agreements that have been entered into, we could not support any government it was a part [of] or any rapprochement that took place.”
Challenged on whether it made sense for the US to give so much money to the Palestinian Authority after moves it had made that the US opposed – such as going to the UN Security Council for a resolution condemning Israeli settlements that the US ultimately vetoed – Clinton gave an impassioned defense of the American investment there.
“The Palestinian Authority, which has control over the West Bank, is demonstrating that it can control extremists, that it can cooperate to protect Israel, that it can give a better economic life to their people. It stands in stark contrast to Hamas,” she said.
“From our perspective, when you look at the region right now, where are the secular regimes, where are the regimes that are actually producing benefits for their people?” she asked. “The Palestinian Authority is doing that.”
She described both Israelis and Palestinians as having valid perspectives on frustration with negotiations, saying that the Palestinians believed they’d almost had a deal with former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
“Israeli politics changes, just like our politics changes, a new administration comes in, a new prime minister, a new coalition and they have to start all over again. So they get a little put out,” she said. “But the Israelis rightly say, ‘Look, we’re a new government, we want to start differently.’” At the same time that Clinton was testifying, hundreds of J Street activists were lobbying Capitol Hill to maintain its funding of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Despite the gaping US deficit, the Obama administration has held the foreign operations budget roughly constant from 2011. Next year’s proposal, as it now stands, includes the same funding for the PA at some $400 million, and for Egypt with $1.3b. in military funding and $250m. in economic aid.
The aid for Israel is set to increase slightly, to $3.1b. in military aid, in keeping with a 10-year memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries.