Testimony of Michael Singh to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.S. Policy On Iran

March 28, 2017

Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Cardin, and Members of the Committee, thank you for this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss United States policy toward Iran.

Speculation regarding the new U.S. administration’s policy toward Iran often begins with the question of whether it will keep or scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries—the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany—is formally known. This, however, would be the wrong question with which to begin crafting a new Iran policy. To start from this premise would be to perpetuate a central mistake of the Obama administration: for eight years, the United States has viewed Iran policy through the lens of the nuclear negotiations; it should now instead see the nuclear issue through the lens of broader Iran policy. Iran’s nuclear program is so concerning not simply—or even primarily—because of the general U.S. interest in nuclear nonproliferation but because of the broader threats Iran poses. Iran is the Middle East’s leading revisionist state, determined to alter the regional balance of power in its own favor at the expense of the United States and its allies. Although Iran’s policies are far from the only problem confronting America in the Middle East, they are arguably the most important, and contribute in material ways to many others: Iran’s efforts to project power have destabilized Lebanon, prolonged the Syrian civil war, and fueled resentment among Arab Sunnis and the rise of jihadist groups like the Islamic State.

In response, the United States should pursue a strategy of deterrence—ensuring Iran’s leadership understands the costs of challenging American interests and the benefits of accommodating itself to the prevailing international and regional order. Yet Washington must also recognize that Tehran is a difficult foe to deter: while it has proven itself to be a rational actor, weighing costs and benefits and choosing the course of action it deems best for regime interests, its anti-Americanism is not a mere indication of prejudice but rather an ideological pillar with which it will not easily part. This is why better relations with the United States do not entice Iran, although regime officials do appear to debate vigorously how best to manage ties with Washington in light of Iran’s other interests. Nor is Iran’s desire for regional dominance a recent flirtation: it has been one of the region’s most influential states for millennia, and its clashes with the region’s other ancient empires predate the rise of Islam. Any Iranian regime— revolutionary or democratic, pro- or anti-Western—would likely aim to play a leading role in the region. It is this mixture of anti-American revisionism and hegemonic ambition that makes the Iranian challenge so difficult.

A strategy of deterrence toward Iran should seek to advance three broad objectives:

1. Nuclear. Prevent Iran from building or acquiring a nuclear weapon, and from meaningfully advancing its nuclear weapons capabilities (fuel fabrication, weaponization, and delivery). In addition, prevent Iran from sharing nuclear weapons technology with other states or nonstate actors.

2. Regional. Counter and defeat Iranian efforts to challenge American interests in the Middle East and South/Central Asia or to undermine U.S. allies in these regions. In addition, limit Iranian malign influence and power-projection capabilities in these regions.

3. Global. Prevent Iran from mounting terrorist attacks or cyberattacks on the United States or U.S. interests, or from supporting states and nonstate actors that seek to challenge U.S. interests.

The following paragraphs lay out a strategy for achieving these objectives, the obstacles facing it, and concrete actions the new administration can take to advance such a strategy.

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Read the full testimony below.

Attachment: