Counterbalancing Iran

On Wednesday, Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) paid a visit to the Middle East Institute to deliver a keynote address entitled “Challenges in U.S.-Iran Foreign Policy.” The senator’s speech highlighted the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East to counter Iranian influence.

Despite its flaws, the JCPOA has succeeded in its primary objectives: freezing Iran’s nuclear program, supporting global counter-proliferation efforts, and opening channels of communication to prevent the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran. While decrying Iran’s abysmal human rights record and acknowledging that several members of Congress seek to undo the landmark agreement, Coons insisted that commitment to the JCPOA is the United States’ best bet to contain the Iranian nuclear threat and prevent direct conflict.

“We should only walk away,” countered the senator, “when there is clear cause to do so.”

Coons was adamant that “calls for regime change or war with Iran are reckless.” One needs look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to see examples of failed U.S. initiatives in the region. Moreover, regime change raises the threat of a power vacuum and jihadi forces ready to fill it.

Conditioning US-Iran relations is a delicate project. Ultimately, concerns about the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East must inform the US stance on governments and organizations as diverse as Iraqi Kurdistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In particular, the impending September 25 referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence presents a minefield for American rhetoric and policy: the referendum, if approved, would weaken the integrity of the Iraqi state and shift the country’s Sunni-Shia sectarian balance to a Shia majority, increasing Iran’s clout. Yet the argument for Iraqi Kurdish self-determination is compelling, and Kurds have been strong regional allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Additionally, announced Coons, the GCC feud must be put to rest. It weakens the Middle East’s strongest anti-Iran bloc and American ability to counter Iranian sway.

The Senator pins hopes for the future of US-Iran relations on Senate Bill 722: the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. The bill, which has stalled in the House of Representatives following a constitutional challenge, would impose non-nuclear sanctions on Russia and Iran to punish Iran for “unacceptable non-nuclear behavior,” including support for the Assad regime in Syria, threats to Israel, and antagonism towards U.S. allies in the Gulf. The senator also advises American diplomats to negotiate a successor agreement to the JCPOA, which will be critical as sunset clauses in the existing agreement go into effect.

Crucially, American officials must restrict their antagonism to the Iranian government—not the Iranian people. The May 19 Iranian presidential elections, which re-elected moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani, indicate that Iranians want a less repressive regime and a more open society. President Trump’s Muslim ban and inflammatory rhetoric do nothing to serve American interests—they only stoke anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people.

Given the results of the presidential election and the tentative success of the JCPOA, the Trump administration would be foolish to sabotage relations with Iran.

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