On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Iran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East. The Obama administration has reduced the “Iran problem” merely to its desire for a nuclear bomb while doing very little to check the whole panoply of actions that threaten U.S. allies in the region, promote instability and create the potential for terrorists to gain access to weapons of mass destruction. This is a grave error, but understandable if you have a president who wants to retrench and abandon the historic U.S. role as guarantor of the West’s freedom and security.
In his opening remarks, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations sketched out the challenges we face. He warned, “Tehran is busy advancing its claims in a contested Middle East, and Washington would be wise to check the surge of Iranian power and negate its regional designs.” He explained that the regime’s revolutionary extremist nature will not change based on the current Iranian president, no matter how he is marketed for Western consumption. At the same hearing, Scott Modell of the Center for International and Strategic Studies agreed: “Iran’s nuclear program is just the tip of a revolutionary spear that extends across the world and threatens key U.S. interests. Iran’s foreign policy is subversive, sectarian, and set on goals that would come at the expense of U.S. interest in the region.”
It was in the face of a revolutionary state with hegemonic ambitions that we made a grave error. As Takeyh put it, “Whatever compunctions Tehran may have had about American power greatly diminished with the spectacle over Syria where Washington’s redlines were erased with the same carelessness that they were initially drawn.”
It is up to the administration to change the Iranians’ impression of the United States by actions, not hollow speeches and idle threats, he explained:
America must find a way to impose limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions through negotiations while restraining its regional ambitions through pressure. This will require rehabilitation of America’s battered alliance system in the Middle East. Strategic dialogues and military sales can only go so far. Washington’s cannot reclaim its allies’ confidence without being an active player in Syria and Iraq. So long as America exempts itself from these conflicts, its pledges will ring hollow to a skeptical Arab audience.
This is the fundamental problem with Obama’s retrenchment and the far right’s isolationism: Its prescriptive retreat is precisely the wrong approach because it feeds Iran’s ambitions while unnerving allies. Takeyh advised:
Despite all professions of common interests and subtle and indirect hints of cooperation to come, the Islamic Republic will only alter the dimensions of its foreign relations if it is confronted with a dramatic threat. As in 2003, [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei will be prone to pay a high price for his survival. Should we gain sufficient coercive leverage then we will be in a position to alter Iran’s policies. Under these circumstances, we would impose important and durable restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran would be asked to cease subverting its neighbors and limit its support to Hezbollah and Hamas to political advocacy. Human rights would have to assume a high place in our negotiations—Iran must be pressed to honor international norms on treatment of its citizens. In the end, it is important to stress that the confrontation between the United States and Iran is a conflict between a superpower and a third-rate autocracy. We should not settle for trading carrots and sticks and hoping for signs of elusive moderation from truculent theocrats.
Congress therefore has two tasks — to encourage the administration to stop doing counterproductive things (giving the store away in Vienna) and to prompt the president to start doing things that re-establish U.S. influence in the region. Some of these efforts are entirely within Congress’s role as keeper of the purse. The defense budget must be right-sized to address real threats and to put powers such as Iran on notice that the United States’ holiday from history is over. In other cases, Congress can withhold action (e.g. not lift sanctions) to prevent grievous mistakes.
Most important, it can also use oversight hearings and the power of the bully pulpit to widen the debate. The end goal is not merely to deny Iran nuclear weapons, but to eliminate the threat of what Modell described as a network of governmental and nongovernmental actors (e.g. the Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad) that have terrorized neighbors, killed U.S. troops and destabilized U.S. allies. That requires we work hand in glove with Israel and our Sunni allies to develop and deploy “a comprehensive and global campaign against the operational and strategic depth” of Iran and its network of entities. Modell argued that we should “target the illicit networks and operatives associated with [Iran], including its financial, business, and logistical support networks. The goal should be a counter network disruption campaign, modeled where appropriate, on previous successful U.S. whole-of-government initiatives against defiant state actors that combine overt and covert action.”
In short, we need an Iran policy, not a set of fruitless and endless meetings in Vienna to plead with Iran to change its spots. Congress should fund and authorize such an effort and hold the administration accountable through oversight. It is very hard — and peculiar — to develop and run foreign policy from Congress, but in this case it is better than nothing, which is precisely what we are getting from the Obama administration.