In the fifth in a series of events featuring authors from The Iran Primer, panelists Ellen Laipson and Geoffrey Kemp discussed U.S. policy concerns and options regarding Iran, vis-à-vis recent changes in the Middle East and their effects on the U.S.-Iran relationship.
On April 27, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on "Iran Primer V: U.S. Policy Considerations" with Laipson, President and CEO of the Stimson Center, and Kemp, Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Center for the National Interest. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Laipson noted that the recent Arab revolts have brought about a shift in focus from the "paralyzing" Iranian nuclear issue to a broader discussion of new dynamics affecting the trajectory of regional relations. She detailed the American perspective, which she said sees the hypocrisy in Iran's rhetorical support for democratic movements in the region while it shows violent repression of similar domestic movements.
Regarding the transformation in the region, Laipson stressed the difficulty of the loss of additional U.S. influence due to the regime change in Egypt. She said that in light of these changes, the future of Egyptian government and foreign policy is ultimately unknown but is likely to be self-promoting, moderate, and independent of what some Egyptians called "foreign influence," a reference to pressure asserted by the United States.
In discussing the recently reestablished diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran, Laipson emphasized that Iran is focused on promoting its interests and sustaining state-to-state relations. She posited that a removal of the Syrian al-Assad regime would be a setback for Iran, comparable to the loss of Egypt for the United States. Laipson also noted that while Iranian elites expressed solidarity with Bahraini Shiites, Bahrain is not a definitive feature of Iran's foreign policy and that Iran would be cautious to avoid destabilizing gains it made with Saudi Arabia. She said that U.S. rhetoric blaming Iran for the turmoil in Bahrain serves as a de facto warning to Iran not to meddle. In considering new strategic alignments in the Middle East, Laipson posited that if multiple power centers arise in the region, U.S.-Iran relations would be set in a new context as there no longer would be a contest for regional hegemony.
Kemp observed that Iran has not been a priority for the Obama administration but that it would be during the upcoming re-election campaign. He commented that Iran will matter more because of rising oil prices, its nuclear program that has continued unabated, and the upcoming AIPAC annual conference in Washington in May. Kemp argued that during the conference, the Israeli Prime Minister will probably voice concerns to Congress about Israel being an "island of stability" in a precarious region, the rapprochement between Iran and Egypt, and the Iranian nuclear weapons issue, which would push Iran back to the top of the agenda.
Regarding Obama administration priorities, Kemp mentioned that the United States should not jeopardize its successful relationship with the European Union because EU support is needed to support sanctions against Iran and balance against Chinese and Russian resistance in the UN Security Council. Kemp also called for a more robust policy toward Iran requiring it to comply with its Nonproliferation Treaty obligations in exchange for something it wants. He also commented that sanctions on Iran have been effective in weakening its energy sector but not in convincing Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Kemp described the pressure on President Obama to dismiss a preemptive strike, which would isolate the United States, aggravate oil prices, and destroy economic recovery. Kemp concluded that the Obama administration would handle this pressure by continuing to work with the European Union, maintain sanctions, and keep the option of force on the table.
By Sara Girgis, Middle East Program