WASHINGTON -- House Republicans gave the stage Wednesday to hardliners who called for everything from cyber attacks to political assassinations in response to Iran's alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on American soil, which was revealed earlier this month.
"We've got to put our hand around their throat now," retired Army Gen. John Keane told a hearing of two key subcommittees of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Speaking of the Quds Force, which is accused of masterminding the foiled plot to use Mexican drug traffickers to carry out the hit in Washington, he implored the panel, "Why don't we kill them? We kill other people who kill others."
The bellicose testimony, which stopped short of calls for military action, was only the most colorful in a hearing in which lawmakers bandied about phrases such as "an act of war" and "red lines" that had been crossed. The joint hearing on "Iranian Terror Operations on American Soil" was called by the subcommittees on counterterrorism and intelligence and on oversight, investigations and management, and it featured a panel of neoconservatives who portrayed the plot as a last straw that demanded tougher actions against Iran.
The bungled plot was "a stunning rebuke to the Obama administration's policy of negotiation and isolation with the Iranians," Keane said, adding that neither Republican nor Democratic administrations since 1980 have dealt effectively with Iran.
"They have been systematically killing us for over 30 years," he noted, recounting a series of Iranian-inspired attacks beginning with the 1983 bombing of the American Embassy in Lebanon and continuing to the arming of Shiia militia blamed for killing U.S. troops in Iraq to the latest alleged attack this month. He said the time for "half measures" was over and it was time to "begin to treat Iran as the strategic enemy they truly are."
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think tank, agreed and urged an array of covert operations against Iran. "It's crystal clear they have the conception that now today in Washington, D.C., they can have a terrorist operation," he said, "and could get away with it."
Another witness, Matt Levitt, a counterterrorism expert at the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called for stepped-up diplomatic and financial pressure on Iran but also said in a written statement that "U.S. unilateral raids or raids undertaken in collaboration with Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service should be accelerated."
Several witnesses accused the media of downplaying the plot and suggesting it was too implausible to be real, comparing the reaction to the complacency in the period before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Only Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official now with the liberal Center for American Progress, testified against "overreaction" to what he called a "Keystone Kops" plot that he said was "an act of desperation" by a country reeling under international sanctions. While "it might be emotionally satisfying" to ratchet up pressure on Iran, he reminded lawmakers that "unthinking military action by the United States has strengthened Iran's hand" through the invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq.
That was a message welcomed by Democrats on the committee, who cautioned against overreaction.
Republican rhetoric "may be premature and could inflame an already fragile climate," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee's ranking Democrat. He warned against taking actions "that would lead us down the path to another war."
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) also called for "sober, reasoned discussion," especially given recent reports showing that sanctions have set back Iran's nuclear weapons program.
"Iran's leaders must be held accountable for their action," she said, "but we cannot take any reckless actions which may lead to opening another front in the 'War on Terror,' which the American people do not want and cannot afford."
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