A hearing was recently held by the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Iran’s influence and strategies, as well as their regional and global impact. 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, all authorities on Iran, were called as witnesses by the subcommittee.
Takeyh said, “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.”
Participants in the hearing cited the various reasons dealing assertively with Iran is necessary. They focused on Iran’s policies, which have not contributed to peace, but have sowed discord instead.
Subcommittee Chairman Poe said, “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.”
Testimony examined the impact of the 2015 nuclear agreement. “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, this prosperity has not trickled down to the average Iranian, he noted.
Iran is modernizing its military efforts. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unveiled the Sixth Development Plan, and the expansion of the national defense budget to five percent of their total GDP, which depends on Iran’s ability to access additional resources as part of the nuclear deal. Iran has made deals with China and Russia for military hardware and material.
“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.”
Additionally, he said, “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.”
Byman talked about Iran’s support for terrorist groups, even while it fights ISIS in Iraq, “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.”
And Berman noted that the U.S. must work on alliances that have gone neglected, such as its relationship with Israel. The key to halting the spread of fundamentalism and extremism by Iran is building alliances.
Strategic plans to address the regime’s influence regionally and globally were the focus of the hearing. To this end, Berman said that now is the time for the new administration to enact measures that send a clear signal that it will not condone a return to “business as usual” with the Islamic Republic, especially since banks and other financial institutions are hesitating to do business with Iran. He also noted that the most promising step would be the blacklisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Because of its economic power, the designation would have a profound impact on large portions of the Iranian economy, and 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 stated, “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.”
The common theme at the hearing was the threat of Iran, and that part of the strategy should be to focus on pressure that would allow for regime change. The Iranian resistance continues to work on an international level to create that pressure, to change the leadership in Iran and build a true democracy.