Future U.S. Iran Policy in a Shifting Regional Order

May 13, 2016, Washington D.C. – The Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. held a panel on Friday, May 13th, to discuss regional tensions in the Middle East in the wake of the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Indira Lakshmanan, Senior Foreign Policy Correspondent for Bloomberg News, moderated the discussion. The panel comprised a diverse group of regional experts: Vice Admiral John M. Miller, former U.S. Naval Commander; Dennis Ross, Counselor and Distinguished William Davidson Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Paul Pillar, researcher and faculty member at the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies; and Alex Vantanka, senior fellow at The Middle East Institute and PAAIA Public Policy Advisor. While there were some differences of opinion regarding Iran’s role in regional stability, the majority of panelists praised the JCPOA for improving dialogue between Iran and the U.S.

Lakshmanan began the discussion by asking Miller to comment on proxy wars in the Middle East and how the U.S. should respond to instability in the region. Miller explained that the U.S. assesses a year’s worth of aggressive activity on the part of Iran to gauge the level of hostility accurately. Recent missile testing in the country, Miller explained, suggests that Iran’s activity is above normal, but further observation in the coming months is necessary to put this activity into context.

In contrast to Miller’s negative prognosis on Iran’s entry into the “community of nations”, Dennis Ross expressed the existence of potential longer term change as “the deal has enabled a pragmatic constituency within Iran.” Ross continued that integrating the Islamic Republic into international financial systems might allow those institutions and their capitalistic interests to affect the balance of power within Iran. The deal’s lack of immediate success was expected, Ross concluded, and does not indicate that it is totally unsuccessful given its long term potential. “We now have these diplomatic channels. There is a channel of communication that we have that we didn’t have before”.

Alex Vatanka was then asked to to comment on the political radicalism of President Rouhani, having listened to the President’s rhetoric in the original Farsi. Is he a moderate, or simply less radical on the spectrum of hard-liners? Lakshmanan asked. In addition, will “[the deal] …be a noose around his neck in the coming [2017 presidential] election?”. Vatanka responded that “if not a noose, this deal will certainly be something that the office of the supreme leader will use as a check on the presidential agenda”. Vatanka mentioned that the Supreme Leader has not said anything good nor bad about the JCPOA, when we would have expected him to denounce the deal. At the same time, Vatanka clarified, the Iranian regime does feel that the U.S. has enforced unfair sanctions on them. As Vatanka put it, “Rouhani will stand up and say ‘the deal was great, we achieved a lot’ and Khamenei’s people will say ‘I see all these foreign dignitaries come to Tehran but where is the tangible benefit on the ground?’. That’s the debate in Tehran right now.” Vatanka concluded “Rouhani believes, ‘at least [the JCPOA] unshackled Iran’, but if Iran wants foreign investments [it] needs to do more than fix the nuclear issue”.

Shifting the focus back to the U.S., Pillar elaborated on U.S. interests in the JCPOA. According to Pillar, “Our interests are, firstly, preventing a clash which may involve our forces directly or the forces of Iran and other countries that we’re associated with. It will also extend to having a more stable security system in the Persian Gulf region—obviously Iran has to be a major player in that. And finally, working with Iran to pursue our interests in all those areas where interests partly conflict and partly converge”. The JCPOA, Pillar continued, is a big step forward in diplomacy and in reaching these goals.

The panel ended with a debate regarding Iran and Saudi Arabia as sources of instability in the region. While Miller acknowledged disruptive Saudi activities, he seemed to imply that Iran is the more aggressive of the two. Pillar disagreed, firmly stating that of the two Saudi Arabia was by far the more aggressive and militarily involved. Pillar also refuted Miller’s examples of Iranian adventurism (attempting to deliver lethal aid to Yemen, threatening to close the strait of Hormuz, attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.) by pointing out that many of these examples were outdated. Instead, Pillar said, records show that there has been very little increase in Iran’s emboldened activity. Pillar continued that the logic that many anti-JCPOA representatives have used—that improving the Iranian economy will lead to increased “bad behavior”— is not sound. If this were true, Pillar said, there would have been a decrease in aggressive activity during the Iranian sanctions and when oil prices dropped. On the contrary, Pillar continued, “the IRGC has been drawn down from an estimated 2,500 troops down to about 700”. Pillar advised his co-panelist, as well as the audience, not to draw any conclusions about the health of the agreement based off of the few months of regional behavior we have observed since its introduction. It is safe to assume, however, that communication and potential for diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran has increased since the inception of the JCPOA.

Click here for a video of the panel.

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