CAPITOL HILL - Iran's destabilizing actions across the Middle East constitute a security threat that rivals that of Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Republican and Democratic U.S. senators said Tuesday.
"Iranian proxies remain a direct threat to the United States and our allies today," said the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, pointing to Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, and Houthi insurgents operating from Yemen, as well as Tehran's influence in Syria.
"American citizens, uniformed and civilian, have been victims of Iranian terror. Iran-sponsored [entities], directed, trained and equipped are a threat to U.S. forces and American citizens today," said the committee's top Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.
"This is a problem that directly threatens U.S. security. In my consultations with leaders in the region, it is crystal clear that Iranian terrorism is on equal grounds with the nuclear threat [posed by Tehran]," Cardin added.
The committee met as Congress looks ahead to the presidency of Donald Trump, who has promised to take a hard line with Iran.
Experts on the Middle East who testified before the committee said there are steps that Congress and the next administration can take to limit Iran's ability to foment regional conflict.
"Ratchet up direct and indirect operations to disrupt IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] activity and interdict support for proxies," recommended Melissa Dalton of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Conduct cyber-disruption of Iranian proxy activities, expose Iranian-backed groups, front companies and financial activities outside its borders," Dalton said. "Exploit nationalist sentiment in the region that bristles at Iranian interference through amplified information operations, sustained financial pressure on the IRGC and proxies, and minimize the space that the IRGC can exploit in the region by building the capabilities of regional partner security forces."
Dalton conceded, however, there is no magic bullet to contain Iran's regional ambitions.
"Absent ideological changes in the Iranian government, the United States will not be able to change Iran's reasoning for supporting proxy groups," she said.
Corker said Iran's destabilizing actions in the Middle East deserve greater attention than they have received so far.
"One reason I opposed the nuclear deal with Iran was that I feared it would end up being our de facto Middle East policy, and that countering Iran's regional efforts would take second fiddle [a back seat], if you will," the chairman said.
Cardin was one of only four Democratic senators who opposed the international nuclear accord with Iran. Nevertheless, he argued it would be a mistake to scrap the accord, as Trump has threatened to do.
"We cannot just walk away without risking the credibility of U.S. commitments, the U.S. leadership role in enforcing sanctions and the security of our partners," Cardin said. "I fear that walking away from the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] now amplifies the prospects of war with Iran, while leaving the United States isolated."