It’s Time To Broaden The Iran Debate

Two weeks ago, we published an op-ed in Politico responding to an earlier piece by Michael O’Hanlon and Marvin Kalb of the Brookings Institution, in which we disagreed with their view of the diplomatic utility of a Congressional authorization of the use of force against Iran, and advised Congress to tread carefully in the Iran debate.

While cautioning against too much optimism over the recent election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president, we noted that “the fact that the most moderate choice prevailed in Iran’s presidential election reveals that there is an important debate taking place amongst Iran’s ruling elite over the nature of Iran’s relations with the world.” We continued:

Given the level of distrust that still exists between the U.S. and Iran, there’s little the U.S. can do to empower its favored interlocutors. But, as the past has shown, there’s a lot the U.S. can do to empower those most opposed to conciliation and compromise. Given the high stakes, the U.S. should be as careful as possible to do no harm, as a heightened congressional debate over the use of force against Iran would almost certainly do.

Last week, the authors responded to our piece at Brookings’ Iran blog. Their basic contention is that, by publicly committing to leaving all options on the table — including military action — in carrying out his policy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, President Obama has put the U.S. “on the road to war with Iran,” and that the American people are therefore owed a fuller debate on this possibility by their elected representatives.


First, we should note that we share the view of O’Hanlon and Kalb that Congress has an important responsibility to oversee the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Iran is by no means the only area where it has come up short. But it’s a bit odd that, in arguing for a Congressional “seminar” on Iran, the authors cite an historical example — Vietnam — that seriously undercuts their case. Despite the Fulbright hearings that began in 1966, the U.S. nevertheless became more deeply involved in Vietnam over the next several years, as the authors themselves acknowledge. And the Congressional debate over Iraq, such as it was, empowered the Bush administration to carry out what the late Ted Sorensen called the “mindless, needless, senseless” invasion and occupation of Iraq. It’s also worth considering what costs an elevated Congressional debate on war with Iran might incur against the preferred outcome of the administration and its international partners, which is a diplomatic solution.

In their previous piece, O’Hanlon and Kalb wrote that a vote in Congress authorizing the use of military force against Iran “could empower the president to press Iran harder on agreeing to a compromise that would limit its future enrichment capabilities and its stocks of enriched uranium.” We noted that there’s little evidence for this view, but substantial evidence for the opposite. While we appreciate that the authors have dropped this particular recommendation from their latest piece, it’s still important to recognize that gestures designed in Washington to demonstrate “seriousness” and “resolve” have, in the past, been received in Tehran as evidence of unreasoning aggression, and affirmed and empowered those factions in the Iranian government who most oppose any rapprochement with the United States.

This isn’t a particularly difficult dynamic to understand. Imagine, for example, that the Iranian parliament took up a series of public debates on the feasibility and consequences of Iranian attacks on U.S. military bases in response to a U.S. strike. U.S. hawks would almost certainly point to such hearings as evidence of Iran’s irretrievable hostility, criticizing those supportive of negotiations as insufficiently committed to the national defense.

So while we continue to believe that Congress should proceed cautiously into any discussion involving the use of military force, we very much agree that the American people deserve to see a much broader and more detailed debate on the issue, not just about the possibility of military action, but also whether such action would actually achieve the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, as well as the various other options short of military action that could do so. As Congressmen Keith Ellison and Jim McDermott wrote yesterday, if Congress does decide to focus on Iran in a more serious way, such a debate “should be broadened to include diplomacy and human rights in addition to sanctions.”

Finally, non-governmental organizations like the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution and many others here in Washington have an important role to play in fostering and informing this debate. Our hope is that, rather than just creating support later for extracting the U.S. from another disastrous Vietnam or Iraq, a more engaged discussion this time will create greater support for avoiding such a war in the first place.