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Iran's Broad Challenge to U.S. Interests

(Washington, DC--September 16, 2005) Growing Iranian government "activism" throughout both the Middle East and Central Asia poses a major challenge to U.S. interests, according to a Middle East expert. Ilan Berman, Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, told a RFE/RL audience this week that "although there are not a lot of solutions to the Iranian challenge," the U.S. needs to make policy changes to address this challenge because Iran's "offensive nuclear program has the potential for breakout."

Berman, author of the recently published "Tehran Rising: Iran's Challenge to the United States," said that, in addition to its much discussed nuclear program, Iran poses a challenge because of its continued sponsorship of terrorism. Iran remains at the top of the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Berman said, and has increased the level of assistance it provides to groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and Hamas, adding that "between 2002-2003, ten percent of all communications of Al-Qaeda traveled through Iran."

Iran is also "solidifying" its position as a regional power in the Persian Gulf, according to Berman, through a "military mobilization and rearmament" program that is aided by Russia, China and North Korea, to help Iran attain "self-sufficiency." The balance of power in the region is being changed as Iran signs bilateral military cooperation agreements with countries of the Persian Gulf. Berman said these agreements are an indication that countries of the Persian Gulf are worried that "the U.S. nuclear umbrella may not be enough [to protect them]." Furthermore, Berman said, Iran is "interfering" in Iraq, and "trying to exert influence in Central Asia and Caucasus" by "co-opting its neighbors." For instance, Berman said Iran has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Azerbaijan, in which both states promise not to base foreign troops on their respective territories. Berman noted that the MOU is an attempt by the Iranians "to take Azerbaijan off the table," while "an Iranian flotilla [on the Caspian Sea] would discourage international investors in Caspian energy."

Berman is pessimistic about the international community taking action against Iran in time to prevent it from realizing its offensive nuclear ambitions. The European Union (EU) negotiations with Iran "are not new" and the negotiations in the 1990s "did not modulate Iranian behavior," he said. Since the EU has said it will "accept some level of nuclear activity," while the U.S. has said "no to a nuclear Iran," Berman maintained that "there is no end game" and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has "no teeth." Iran's nuclear capabilities are so far advanced that Berman predicted that, by 2006, Iran could be capable of launching a rocket that could kill thousands of people in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Berman offered several "tactical" suggestions to meet the challenge posed by Iran. First, the U.S. should continue developing a missile defense system and expand its counter-proliferation efforts. "Offering a missile defense to the Gulf Cooperation Council would inject some doubt on the part of the Iranians," Berman said. The U.S. is already helping to build up the Kazakh navy under the "Caspian Guard" program, and Berman urged the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which now encompasses 60 countries through a series of bilateral agreements, be applied to the Persian Gulf. Berman also called for the U.S. alliance system in the Persian Gulf to be strengthened. "If given an alternative, the Persian Gulf states would alter their current policy of 'modus vivendi' with Iran," he said.

In summary, Berman said that events have already shown that it "is possible to delay the timeline of Iran's nuclear program," but now it is "the regime change clock which needs to tick quicker." He suggested that the "Reagan Doctrine should be revisited" for successful programs that could accelerate democratic change in Iran, such as enhanced U.S. international broadcasting and increased non-governmental organization and expatriate contacts. Currently those programs, to the extent they exist, are under-funded, according to Berman.