WASHINGTON (CN) – Days after the official implementation of the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, senators on Wednesday heard two opposing perspectives of what the deal could mean for stability in the Middle East and how the United States should act in the region with the agreement in place.
At a hearing Wednesday morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators and a witness who have been skeptical of the nuclear deal pointed to Iran’s recent missile tests and capture of American sailors as examples of the deal’s failure and its effect of reducing American power in the region.
But others at the hearing, while condemning Iran’s recent “bad behavior,” insisted the deal provides the framework for a more stable Middle East with the United States as the preeminent power in the region.
The nuclear deal, which the United States, Iran and other world powers struck last year, seeks to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a reduction in economic sanctions against the nation.
Critics of the deal – which survived Republican efforts to officially disapprove of it in a contentious Senate battle – say it will flood money into Iranian coffers, which the state could use to fund terrorists and take hold of the region.
Proponents of the agreement, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, say it was the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Those same criticisms and praises surfaced at the hearing Wednesday, as those who opposed the deal worried about Iran’s ability to further destabilize an already chaotic Middle East.
“Many of the consequences, as you said Mr. Chairman, that we feared would flow from the JCPOA we are now seeing come to pass,” Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute, told the Foreign Relations Committee. “Iran has not moderated its regional policies, it’s continued them. It has not softened its approach towards the United States, but instead we’ve seen Iran’s supreme leader in the aftermath of the JCPOA try to reiterate, reinforce his anti-American bona fides and ideology of the regime.”
Singh warned the “flawed” nuclear agreement has signaled to partners in the Middle East that the United States has pulled back from the region. He pushed back at the Obama Administration’s insistence that the speed with which Iran returned the U.S. sailors it held captive is a sign of improved relations stemming from the deal.
“By and large these incidents merely resolve crises that Iran itself is responsible for creating and wouldn’t have developed if Iran had behaved in a responsible manner like a responsible state,” Singh said. “And we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of rewarding Iran for that bad behavior in which it engages.”
The recent release of Americans held captive in Iran was relatively absent from the hearing, with only passing references and an unanswered question from Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, about whether the exchange represented a shift in policy for the United States .
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, balked at the idea that the United States coalition will always be willing to hit back at Iran economically now that its markets are open for business – once a prominent argument in favor of the agreement.
“I think thinking that unless there’s something so out of bounds that we are going to be able to easily put that coalition back when everybody’s in Tehran trying to do business right now is just not going to happen,” Corker said.
But Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, repeatedly insisted the United States can and should rely on its allies in the region to act as a check against Iranian attempts to destabilize.
“The nuclear agreement, at a time of widespread regional instability has produced very important and tangible benefits for the U.S. and international security,” Katulis said. “It has severely restricted Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon in the next decade and perhaps beyond.”
While he acknowledged Iran is likely to continue its boundary-pushing behavior even with the deal in place, he insisted one way to check this behavior is through the strict implementation of the agreement, rather than through fixes as Singh advocated.
As for the perception the United States is pulling back as the region’s preeminent power, Katulis told the committee the U.S. leadership capability far outstrips that of any other country in the region and that traditional powers like Russia “punched far its weight” in the area.
“If you look at all of the other outside powers, Russia, China, others, they don’t have the potentials and relationships that we have,” Katulis said. “We’re just not using it in ways that I think are as forceful and assertive as they could be.”
Katulis put the blame for this tepid view of U.S. intentions in the region onto the Iraq war, which he said helped to cause the breakup of state structures that has ignited some of the instability in the Middle East.
He also dismissed Corker’s view that regional allies will place economic interests in Iran over the concerns about Iran’s destabilizing efforts.
“But I think the way that this regime behaves, the way the system behaves, will operate as a natural constraint on the opening of floodgates of investment inside Iran,” Katulis said.
Katulis’ larger point throughout the hearing was that the deal is not a finished product that will guarantee a certain path forward in the region. Instead it will require effort to implement it in a way that benefits the United States and its interests in the Middle East.
“This is not done,” Katulis said. “The implementation day is just one day and one moment, but Iranian behavior needs to be monitored closely. Not only monitored, but it has to be structured in such a way that they understand we have all of these tools at our disposal.”
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