By Caroline Tarpey, NIAC
Washington, DC - At a hearing on "Iran's Strategic Aspirations and the Future of the Middle East" in the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Members of Congress and committee witnesses agreed that the current US strategy toward Iran is not working. Where they differed was what direction a new US approach to Iran should take.
"We are in Iraq because we as a nation didn't think. We cannot afford to make the same mistake twice," warned Chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Commenting on the prospects for Iran's ascendance given the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, Ackerman argued the need for the US to develop a much more constructive approach to the Iranian "pest."
"Iran is not just a pest," Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) responded, but a more serious threat to the US, citing the State Department's designation of Iran as the leading state sponsor of terror. Calling UN economic sanctions "not effective" and the multilateral P5+1 offer "fanciful," Pence pointed to H. CON. RES. 362, which would increase the economic isolation of Iran through tighter US-imposed economic sanctions, as a step in the right direction.
While the consensus among Members of Congress was for future US policies to increase economic pressure on Iran, the witnesses painted a very different picture, testifying that talking to Iran must be central to any US strategy.
Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified that Iran no longer seeks to export its revolution. As a result, a foreign policy that addresses practical considerations instead of ideological ones fuels Iran's rise as a regional power, leading Iranian leaders to demand recognition as indispensable in the region.
Shifting to the nuclear issue, "The idea of zero enrichment is untenable," Takeyh stated. Takeyh outlined a US strategy based on diplomatic engagement, which he argued would provide a framework for better management of US-Iranian issues. "If the goal is the evaporation of concerns, that is not happening," he said, but he contended that a shift in US strategy toward diplomacy and multilateral cooperation can make significant progress.
Judith Yaphe, research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, argued that Iran's endgame is regional power, not international legitimacy. To that end, she elaborated, Iran would like to see a unitary, stable Iraq strong enough to maintain its territorial integrity but weak enough not to balance against Iranian power.
Regarding US policy, Yaphe said the US needs greater engagement with Iran: "You talk because you don't get along, not always because you do," Yaphe said. Yaphe pointed out that the current US policy of democracy promotion has had the unintended consequence of strengthening the Iranian government and that without diplomacy the US cannot understand Iran.
"Sanctions delay but they do not deny," Yaphe said of sanctioning Iran for its nuclear pursuits. According to her testimony, the US cannot force Iran to suspend its nuclear program, but could get Iran to dial it back if the US deals with Iran directly.
Echoing the testimony of Takeyh and Yaphe, Jon Alterman, who directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, contended that Iran is becoming an influential regional force. At the same time, he said, the American standing in the Middle East is in decline.
"Our problem in the Middle East is what we've done, what we said we would do and have not done and what we have not committed to do," Alterman said. US policy but must be more predictable and more reliable, he argued.
For US-Iran policy, this means re-assessing US goals. If the US expects to fix all problems with Iran, then the US should not talk to Iran. "With Iran we cannot win, we can only gain," he argued. Instead, the US should see talks with Iran as a management tool. "You can be in the same room and not necessarily be making concessions," Alterman said of US-Iran dialogue.
Members of Congress countered that this approach may not be viable in the current political climate. Without leverage against Iran, Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) said, dialogue is not an option. According to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Iran may not be a rational actor, and therefore cannot be expected to behave logically in a diplomatic framework.
Alterman argued that Iran is hostile, but not irrational. Yaphe commented that labeling Iran irrational becomes a convenient and misinformed excuse for US refusal to engage Iran. Alterman further argued that diplomacy may be the way to gain leverage. American belligerence and war-mongering will cause the US standing in the Middle East to decline even further, weakening our regional alliances, and will drive China further away from cooperation with the US on this issue, he said.
Despite the skepticism of Members of Congress, committee witnesses pushed for diplomacy to be part of the future US strategy. "We have disagreements with France, with Russia, with Germany, with Japan and we don't look for a diplomatic and commercial interaction with those countries as for them to alter the totality of their foreign policy priorities," Takeyh said.
"What we should be looking for in diplomatic engagement is not for one side to win and surrender but a framework for better management of the tensions and conflicts between the two countries."
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