The U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee recently held a hearing to discuss Iran’s influence and strategies to address their impact regionally and globally. The subcommittee called Ilan Berman, Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council; Ray Takeyh, Ph.D., Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies Council on Foreign Relations; and Daniel L. Byman, Ph.D., Senior Fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, as witnesses. These are key authorities on the threat of Iran and how to counteract their influence, both regionally and globally.
“The key actors defining Iran’s regional policy are not its diplomats mingling with their Western counterparts, but the Revolutionary Guards, particularly the famed Quds Brigade. For the commander of the Quds Brigade, General Qassim Soleimani, the struggle to evict America from the region began in Iraq and has now moved on to Syria. For the hardliners, the Sunni states attempting to dislodge Bashir Assad is really a means of weakening Iran. The survival and success of the Assad dynasty is now a central element of Iran’s foreign policy,” said Takeyh.
The individuals participating in the hearing all cited various reasons while Iran needed to be dealt with assertively and without backing down. Their focus was on how Iran’s policies have not contributed to peace, but have sowed the seeds of discord throughout the region, but also had a global impact.
“For decades, Iran has sponsored terrorist groups with American blood on their hands and menaced the world with its dangerous proliferation activities. The nuclear deal reached in the summer of 2015 provided this rogue regime with an immediate access to hundreds of billions of dollars, the promise of even more money yet to come as the result of sanctions relief, and the satisfaction of negotiating a deal with major world powers that wholly ignores its dangerous behavior outside of its nuclear program,” said the Subcommittee Chairman Poe.
Part of the testimony turned to the impact of the 2015 nuclear agreement and how it falls short of addressing Iran’s military might in the long run.
“The cumulative impact has been profound. Iran’s economy, which was teetering on the brink of collapse in the Fall of 2013, is now on a path of sustained growth, according to the estimates of international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank,” said Berman during his testimony. However, he also noted that this prosperity has not trickled down to the average Iranian.
At the same time, Iran has clearly focused on modernizing its military efforts have shifted into high gear. In 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei formally unveiled his government’s Sixth Development Plan, which outlines its intent to expand the national defense budget by nearly a third, to five percent of their total GDP, a surge predicated entirely on Iran’s ability to access additional resources as part of the nuclear deal. New accords for military hardware and material has been created with China and Russia.
“The proponents of the view that Iran would not become a more aggressive regional power as a result of the deal ignored how the Middle East has evolved since the Arab awakenings. The post-colonial Arab state system that featured the dominant nations of Egypt and Iraq is no more,” said Takeyh. “Iran has embarked on a dramatic new mission and is seeking to project its power into corners of the Middle East in ways that were never possible before. This is not the traditional Iranian foreign policy with its sponsorship of terrorism and support for rejectionist groups targeting Israel; imperialism beckons the mullahs but it is also economically burdensome. Without an arms control agreement and the financial rewards it offered—such as sanctions relief, the release of entrapped funds abroad, and new investments—Iran would find it difficult to subsidize its imperial surge.”
All told, Iran can now be said to control four separate Arab capitals: Beirut, Lebanon; Damascus, Syria; Sanaa, Yemen; and Baghdad, Iraq. Using military might and political maneuvers, Iran has substantially increased its influence in the region.
“Today, the theocratic state is ruled by clerical ideologues who claim to know the mind of God. For them, the Islamic Republic is not merely a nation-state, it is a combatant in a struggle between good and evil, at home and abroad—a battle waged for moral redemption and genuine emancipation from the political and cultural tentacles of a profane West. The mullah’s internationalist vision has to have an antagonist and the United States and its allies, particularly Israel, are it,” said Takeyh.
Iran’s growing influence has it supporting terrorist groups, even while it fights ISIS in Iraq. The results are an Iranian policy that focuses on sowing discord to create a power vacuum that Iran can exploit.
“Support for militant and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere benefits Iran in several ways. It enables Tehran to shore up key allies like the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. It also gives Iran leverage against regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. Ties to militant groups strengthen pro-Iran voices in the region, increasing Iran’s influence in some capitals and in the more remote hinterlands of several countries. Finally, the threat of Iranian terrorism against otherwise stable countries is a factor these countries must consider if they choose to confront Tehran,” said Byman.
Berman also noted that the U.S. needs to work on alliances that have been neglected, including the relationship with Israel. Building up alliances is key to blocking Iran’s spread of fundamentalism and extremism. The hearing focused on concrete strategic plans to address the regime’s influence regionally and globally.
Since banks and other financial institutions are hesitating to do business with Iran, according to Berman, now is the time for the new administration to resolutely enact measures that send a clear signal that it will not condone a return to “business as usual” with the Islamic Republic. He also noted that the most promising step in this regard would be the blacklisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is because of its economic clout and a comprehensive designation would have a profound impact, rendering large swathes of the Iranian economy radioactive as a matter of trade policy, and thereby helping prevent a further normalization of international trade with Iran.
“As a regime as dangerous to U.S. interest as the Islamic Republic requires a comprehensive strategy to counter it. This means exploiting all of Iran’s vulnerabilities; increasing the costs of its foreign adventures, weakening its economy, and supporting its domestic discontents. Pursuing that strategy will take time, but eventually, it will put the United States in a position to impose terms on Iran…we should move human rights up the agenda, not look the other way as Iran’s leaders oppress their people,” said Berman.
He also noted that the United States needs to recognize the true threat of Iran, not assume that they are secondary to the Jihadists.
“It must be noted that the Iranian regime was the original Islamic revolutionary state. Its successes inspired a wave of radicals across the Middle East. At its most basic level, the confrontation between the United States and Iran is a conflict between the world’s sole superpower and a second-rate autocracy…A determined policy of pressure would speed the day when the Iranian people replace a regime that has made their lives miserable. And in the interim, it would reduce the threat of a triumphant regime posed to the Middle East and the world beyond,” said Berman.
Other witnesses focused on different issues related to Iran, but the common theme was that Iran is a true threat and needs to be dealt with, not ignored or left to create their own power block on a regional level. It was also apparent that part of the strategy needed to focus on pressure that would allow for regime change in Iran. The Iranian resistance continues to work on an international level to create pressure with the goal of changing the ruling structure in Iran to build a true democracy, not the sham one of the recent Iranian elections.