Congress, Trump need a united front to face down Iran
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Iran policy has been one of the most divisive foreign policy issues in recent years. The Obama administration’s nuclear deal passed Congress without a single Republican vote, and Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to get tougher on Tehran. And with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference in Washington next week, we may see this issue once again near the top of the agenda as Congress is expected to introduce a slew of new initiatives.

For all the divisions, today it is on Iran policy that Congress can lead, joining forces across parties and even with the new administration.

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With Iran now “officially on notice,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE has yet to spell out the precise contours of his more aggressive approach. Given the intense debates on Iran during the Obama administration, many members of Congress have spent more time focusing on this foreign policy issue than any other. As administration officials review their options, Congress should seize the opportunity to articulate an assertive approach that can win the support of both the executive and legislative branches.

 

A Congressional approach to Iran should include several core components.

First, legislators should signal their intent to carefully oversee compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Members disagreed bitterly about the wisdom and terms of the agreement, but a consensus is emerging both on Capitol Hill and in the Trump administration that the best course now is to vigorously enforce the deal and hold Iran to account for any violations.

Efforts to enforce the agreement should include establishing a bipartisan Congressional panel to oversee JCPOA implementation, ensuring the State Department office responsible for overseeing the agreement remains in place, and holding hearings that will keep the issue on the broader foreign policy agenda. Congress should also deter Iran from cheating by raising the costs of potential violations. This means outlining tough new sanctions, beyond reinstating the previous ones, that would only be triggered if the agreement collapses.

Second, Congress should encourage a new campaign of military and intelligence actions, weapons interdiction, law enforcement activity, and sanctions to blunt Iranian support for surrogates in the Middle East. Limited, low visibility action directed at the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force and other proxies — combined with clear messages about America’s willingness to push back against them — can help blunt the expansion of Iranian influence in countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Third, Congress should push the new administration to improve ties with Arab Gulf partners and approve weapons sales and other forms of cooperation with them. The emphasis should be on special operations and low intensity conflict, which is the real challenge Iran poses to them.

The United States should look at establishing a multinational task force with our Gulf partners that would deepen intelligence sharing, training, exercises and joint operations that could be employed as necessary against targets including Iranian proxies, ISIS, and al Qaeda.

Fourth, Congress can promote deeper military and intelligence cooperation with Israel to counter the Iranian challenge. The Israelis’ intelligence resources are particularly useful, and a high level dialogue should aim to monitor Iran’s nuclear program while jointly planning for scenarios in which Iran violates the JCPOA. Helping Israel to counter the threat posed on its northern border by Hezbollah should represent another element of this effort.

Finally, Congress can offer leadership on maintaining diplomatic and people-to-people contacts between Iran and the United States. Former Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe enemy of my enemy is my friend — an alliance that may save the Middle East Democratic governors fizzle in presidential race A lesson of the Trump, Tlaib, Omar, Netanyahu affair MORE and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were able to establish a consistent high level communication channel between Iran and the United States for the first time since the Islamic Revolution. Members of Congress can keep that dialogue going by continuing quiet meetings with Iranian counterparts, as many have done in the past.

Importantly, they should also support programs that deepen educational and civil society contacts between Americans and Iranians as well as broadcasting and other information efforts.

By pressing this agenda, Congress can simultaneously send three messages. To Iran, it would signal resolve and a willingness to help America’s friends as they strive to limit Tehran’s malign activities in the Middle East. To the Trump administration, it would demonstrate that there are areas in which the legislature and executive can find common ground. And to the American people, it would suggest that Republicans and Democrats can come together around a key foreign policy priority, even in today’s divided Congress.

The challenge Iran poses, both to American interests and to what remains of the Middle East order, is urgent. To let it fall prey to partisan bickering would harm our national security. It would also represent a missed opportunity.

Congressional leadership on Iran policy could give both parties and both the legislative and executive branch a political win at a moment when all could use it. Better to face Tehran with a unified front than allow our divisions to create opportunities for it.

Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security where Elizabeth Rosenberg directs the Energy Economics and Security Program and Ilan Goldenberg directs the Middle East Security Program.


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