Tom Lantos, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, made headlines last April when he reiterated his desire to travel to Iran for informal talks with Iranian officials. And yet one month later the Democratic congressman from San Mateo introduced a tough Iran divestment bill with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that the House overwhelmingly passed last week.
The seemingly contradictory approach in dealing with Iran’s regime has many in the local Jewish and Iranian American communities scratching their heads. But Lantos says the approach is consistent because his proposed restrictions and sanctions may discourage the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear weapons program.
“I am an unqualified proponent of dialogue that has nothing to do with the nature of my legislation,” Lantos told The Journal. “I go to countries which we have very bad relations or no relations with whatsoever, because my purpose is to put things on a diplomatic track and hopefully improve relations. Iran is no exception.”
Lantos pointed to his past efforts in opening lines of communications through meetings with officials in Libya, North Korea and the former Soviet Union as proof of his ability to make diplomatic progress.
“In the 1980s I took delegations from Congress to the Soviet Union when that was not the popular thing to do,” Lantos said. “It didn’t prevent me from going to the Soviet Union and talking to them when they had nuclear weapons pointed at us.”
In 1998, Lantos was unsuccessful in his request for a meeting with Mohammad Khatami after the “moderate” Iranian president called for an exchange of writers, scholars and artists between the United States and Iran. Lantos last visited the country in 1978 as a San Francisco State University economics professor.
Lantos, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, would not discuss whether he would address statements of Holocaust denial made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he were to travel to Tehran. Still, local Jewish leaders said a possible journey to Iran by Lantos could make a significant symbolic statement.
“The regime is officially at war with the memory of the Shoah, and Congressman Lantos’ mere presence exposes the big lie without even saying a word,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who also serves on the House Foreign Relations committee, said such a visit could improve U.S. chances of winning international support for American policies toward Iran.
“What greater proof that Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and liar than to be confronted by Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor,” Sherman said. “Lantos’ position is that the discussions with the Iranians are not a special gift to them, but rather would improve our image in the world and help us mobilize the world against the Iranian program.”
Local Jewish leaders also said they were confident that Lantos would be one of the best U.S. officials to deal with Iran based on his longstanding record during his tenure in Congress.
“He is aggressive and out front to stand up for human rights, to stand up for Israel and stand against anti-Semitism without any apologies,” Cooper said. “At the same time he would be able to leverage his position to see if there is a way to mitigate those flash points through personal involvement in the issues.”
White House officials declined to comment on Lantos’ legislation, which passed the House on Sept. 25 in a 397-16 vote; the bill’s companion in the Senate is stalled and likely won’t be considered this year.
Some Middle East experts said they were skeptical of Lantos’ past diplomatic efforts in the region, as countries like Libya have not improved human rights conditions.
“The more Lantos has traveled to Tripoli, the more Qadhafi has cracked down on dissidents and dissent,” said Michael Rubin, a resident Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. “Take the case of Fathi El-Jahmi, Libya’s leading peaceful secular dissident. He was put in prison after Lantos’ first trip and his visitation and medical care have been stripped with each passing Lantos visit.”
Southern California Iranian Jewish leaders said that while Lantos has been a close friend to the community and he has sought their advice on issues of Iran, his proposed visit to Iran might not yield any diplomatic breakthroughs.
“I don’t believe talking with the Islamic Republic would yield much benefit to the United States. Instead, it could disenfranchise the people of Iran who consider the United States to be their allies,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation. “It will allow the Islamic Republic more time to continue with its nuclear weapons program.”
Several Iran experts said that while Lantos and other politicians have good intentions to resolve problems with the Iranian regime through dialogue, such strategies carried out by European leaders between 2000 and 2005 have proven to be unfruitful.
“Dialogue turned out to be a sham,” said Rubin, a longtime scholar of Iran’s regime. “Rather than embrace the West, we now know that the Iranian government invested 70 percent of its hard currency windfall into its covert [nuclear] programs.”
Calls made to the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations were not returned.
Other Iran experts said that if Lantos were to travel to Iran on a diplomatic mission, he would have some success persuading moderate Iranian officials.
“It would be particularly useful if Mr. Lantos could meet with the more reform-minded members of parliament, in order to show that he is not proposing some deal with the regime which sells out the democratic cause,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the bipartisan Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington D.C.