By Russell Berman - 01/13/12 10:40 PM EST
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Friday that key U.S. allies in the Middle East are voicing doubts that efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions through economic sanctions and oil embargoes will be successful.
In an interview with The Hill, Cantor said that during a week-long trip abroad, he heard warnings from neighbors of Iran who believe that the clerical regime in Tehran can’t be stopped — simply because “it has nothing to lose.”
“We have got to do everything that we possibly can to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability,” the majority leader said in a phone interview from France, the fifth leg of a congressional delegation trip that included stops in Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “But I am coming away with a sense that there are players in the region who feel that also, while we are on this track of doing everything that we can with sanctions, with oil embargoes, cutting Iran off from the international financial community, that we also have to be in the planning stages, we also have to realize that these things may not work.
Asked if by “planning stages” he meant U.S. military action, Cantor replied: “I think everything is on the table.”
Cantor was joined on the trip, known as a CODEL, by eight other House members, including the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), and the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas). One Democrat, Rep. Peter Welch (Vt.), also took part.
Cantor said Iran policy was a focus of the visits, which came at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Tehran.
In response to tighter sanctions from the West, the Iranian regime has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a move that could restrict access to about one-fifth of the world’s daily oil trade. The New York Times reported Friday that the Obama administration had used a secret communications channel to warn Iran that closing the strait would cross a “red line” and provoke an American response to reopen the waterway by military means.
The possibility that Iran would close the strait came up in discussions with senior officials from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Cantor said.
“Obviously the free world relies on that region for so much of its fossil fuel supply, its energy, and I think defense-wise, closing the Strait of Hormuz is an unacceptable action by Iran, so we would have to respond,” Cantor said. “I think the feeling is in the Gulf that something like that really couldn’t last.”
The most palpable impact for Americans could be a spike in gas prices because of a significant disruption in the global oil supply. Cantor said the officials the delegation spoke to reported there was enough excess supply in the region to meet regional demands, at least initially.
“The conclusion ... was [that] there is enough capacity to meet those demands so as to maintain some stability in the price of oil,” he said, citing supplies in Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia. “There’s currently enough capacity right now.”
The saber-rattling from Iran has increased following the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist that Iran has blamed on Israel.
Cantor has joined other Republicans in criticizing the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel, and he and Ros-Lehtinen have helped lead a congressional push for legislation to strengthen sanctions against Iran, which is widely seen as posing an existential threat to the Jewish state. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican serving in Congress, visited Israel with another bipartisan congressional delegation in August.
The Virginia Republican has not been a loud critic of other elements of the president’s foreign policy, but as he reflected on his conversations with U.S. allies he expressed concern about the administration’s handling of a number of problem areas in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
On Iraq, Cantor was asked whether he believed President Obama’s decision to remove all U.S. military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake.
“People in the region seem to think that we have [made a mistake], and that was a repeated message to us,” he said. “I’m going to return to Washington and urge the administration to continue to exert influence.
“We obviously have a lot invested in Iraq in blood and treasure, and we should be able to make sure that the moderates are able to prevail and assume power and continue in power in Iraq. That is a concern of those in the region — that we’re not headed in that direction. A lot of concern, a lot of different places.”
Cantor blamed the success of Islamist factions in the recent elections in Egypt in part on poor planning by the administration when a popular revolution forced former President Hosni Mubarak from power last spring.
“The thought is that an ally of ours for 30-something years fell, and yet there was no real plan going forward and a vacuum created and now we have the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement in Egypt competing for power,” Cantor said. “One would have trouble imagining a more troubling situation than that. We need to insist that we are not for the extremists, that we are for the defense of our allies and our assets and interests in the region.”
Cantor praised the French government and President Nicolas Sarkozy for being “more vocal” than the Obama administration in trying to oust the Assad regime from power in Syria.
“I would urge this administration to get serious and focus on the situation in Syria,” he said.
Democrats have lampooned Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for taking lengthy overseas trips during the congressional recess rather than returning early to Washington to begin work on extending the payroll-tax cuts and unemployment benefits through the end of the year. A website created by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee depicted Cantor in a beret as a tourist in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Cantor, however, described a busy schedule of meetings with high-ranking government officials, including the equivalent of the French national security adviser, a top aide to the French foreign minister and his counterpart in the French national assembly.
He lauded the Sarkozy government for its positions on Iran, Israel and Syria. That is a shift in tone from the prevailing GOP sentiment toward France during the George W. Bush administration, when Republicans were quick to criticize and even mock the French over their opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. (That tone has lingered in the Republican presidential race, where Newt Gingrich is running an ad criticizing Mitt Romney for being able to speak French.)
Cantor highlighted French support for sanctions against Iran’s central bank and an oil embargo by the European Union, and he said French officials thanked the congressional delegation for a provision in the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act that would bar countries that do business with the central bank from accessing the U.S. financial system.