Since the U.S. Administration started negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program in 2013, congressional committees have held 26 hearings providing expert, non-governmental testimonies on the topic.
An analysis by Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau shows that over two-thirds of the experts testifying were either hostile to the deal, or highly suspicious of the administration’s negotiations with Tehran from the beginning. In fact, a third of the people testifying belonged to only three organizations, all known for their hard line against Iran. Proponents of the deal worry that these experts and organizations will control the debate about the topic before Congress votes on it in September.
One of the primary functions of congressional committees is to organize hearings where non-governmental experts and researchers provide their opinions and analysis.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations are the primary organizers of Iran-related hearings; others are the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. These “expert” -only hearings rarely get the same attention as those featuring government witnesses, but they shouldn’t be discounted, says Stephen Miles, advocacy director for the Center for International Policy, an organization that supports the Iran deal.
“This is the testimony that is going before members of Congress, it’s helping to shape the debate, it’s helping to convey what comes out of Washington about these issues. It’s incredibly important that the American public gets a balanced viewpoint from the witnesses.”
Congressional rules give the majority party the right to pick hearing topics and to usually invite three out of every four-of the panelists. Staffers on those committees get a lot of leeway in picking the experts who testify.
According to former staffers we talked to, the majority staff will usually make sure that the experts agree with the majority opinion on the topic.
Republicans have controlled the House since the 2011 and the Senate since the 2015.
According to our analysis, 56 of 82 individual expert testimonies on Iran since 2013 were from witnesses who were highly critical of the deal or the negotiations. Many individuals testified several times and a third of the testimonies came from experts working in only three organizations: The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
In fact, David Albright, the head of ISIS, has testified on nine separate occasions since 2013. All of the organizations above are considered hawkish on foreign policy.
The problem, Miles says, is that the panelists’ give the mistaken impression that most experts who work on Iran issues and on non-proliferation issues are against the deal.
But Omri Ceren, who is the managing director at the Israel Project, an organization that describes itself as opposed to the terms of the current deal, says the witness testimony was balanced and came at a time when the Administration was flooding Congress with pro-deal messaging from its own officials.
“These guys are the top world experts on the topic. They weren't against the deal, they were testifying on ways to get a good deal. Until the administration began rapidly collapsing on prior conditions-which picked up pace in the days leading up to the Lausanne talks -these guys couldn't even be counted as against the deal.” Ceren says, referring to the March 2015 negotiations.
Supporters of the agreement with Iran are worried. Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, a member of the Progressive Caucus and an ardent defender of the deal says, “The truth is, most experts think this is a good deal, the overwhelming number of ambassadors think it’s a good deal, ambassadors to Israel think it’s a good deal, the American people think it’s a good deal. But public policy and public support on this can shift if we do not continue to advocate.” Ellison says the majority of the calls his office receives about the deal are supportive.
Not so for Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. In a press conference flanked by pro-deal activities in Washington, D.C., Schakowsky said she received about 200 constituent calls in support of the deal, but over 300 against it. “We know that the opponents of this deal are energized, they will be calling…we need to make sure we are overwhelmingly calling people, meeting with them in their district, sending them emails.” She urged.
Another issue that rankles supporters of the deal is that many Democrats on the relevant committees hold the same hawkish views on Iran as their Republican counterparts do. In particular, they refer to Senator Robert Menendez, who was until recently the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Congressman Elliot Engel, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Miles says, “for a lot of issues you have stark differences between Republicans and Democrats and this works out to give you a balanced viewpoint. Unfortunately on this issue we have folks in the leadership of these committees who are hawkish. When they put forward a witness, oftentimes these witnesses don’t disagree with the Republican witness. The entire expert community that disagrees with those experts is getting left out of the conversation.”
(Al-Arabiya’s summer intern Caroline McKee contributed to this research)