Next Steps on Iran
With Introductory Remarks by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
Cosponsored by the Brookings Institution
About This Event

Please note this event will take place at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Senate Room 203/202.

The sight of thousands of Iranians protesting in the streets of Tehran this summer evoked images of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many observers suggested the regime was in mortal danger, or at least that the protests marked the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic. Others argued the regime would use unrest as an opportunity to ramp up repression, and the end product would be a regime nastier at home and more aggressive abroad. While there have been some signs that Iran is open to dialogue with the United States, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was far from conciliatory at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), launching into a virulent anti-Semitic rant that caused most Western delegations to exit the chamber.

Ten months into the Obama administration and four months after the election unrest began in Iran, the road ahead remains unclear. Will the Iranian clergy turn on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom they have long disliked? Will the opposition continue to call for reform from within or begin to advocate for more monumental change? Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic is continuing its enrichment program in defiance of international demands and has signaled that it will make no major concessions in the approaching talks with the EU-3+3.

In the wake of the UNGA and the G20 meeting, and on the same day of the first Iranian "sit downC with the Obama administration, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution will cohost a discussion between Danielle Pletka, AEI's vice president of foreign and defense policy studies; Michael O'Hanlon, a former defense budget analyst, now at the Brookings Institution; and Kenneth M. Pollack, a former director of Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, also at the Brookings Institution. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post will moderate.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, OCTOBER 1--On the heels of the recent revelation that Iran secretly developed a second centrifuge plant hidden in the mountains outside Qom, senior officials from six world powers sat down to speak to Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in Geneva on October 1. As these talks were underway, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and three experts from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution convened to discuss possible next steps for the United States in its relations with Iran.

In his introductory remarks, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) described the day as a "pivotal moment" for the United States and Iran, and a cause for "renewed urgency." He argued that the Qom facility served as "significant evidence" to support the expectation that Iran will simply exploit any engagement to ensnare the United States in an endless process of talks and half-measures. The process is not enough, he said, in the absence of "clear and credible benchmarks for mutual steps forward and a timetable for meeting them." The current Iranian leadership, he warned, "will only consider stepping back from the nuclear brink when they are convinced that, if they fail to do so, there will be consequences so severe that the continuity of their regime will be threatened."

Responding to the criticism that sanctions could sour the hearts and minds of the population, Sen. Lieberman said that he believes that "the Iranian people are more than smart enough to know who is [really] to blame in the event of economic sanctions." He added that America has a moral imperative to expand its engagement with Iran's population. "The dangers begin," he argued, "with the essential nature of the regime in Tehran."

The senator concluded his address with a list of Iran's threats to the region and the world: "a nuclear-armed Iran," he said, "will overturn the balance of power in the Middle East, and tilt this critical region toward extremism. It will empower Iran's terrorist proxies, . . .precluding any chance of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It will deal a death-blow to the global non-proliferation regime, as other countries will inevitably rush to go nuclear." Sen. Lieberman finished, "The consequences of a nuclear-armed Iranwill sooner or later come to threaten the security of the American people right here at home."

Kenneth M. Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said it was "one of the terrible ironies" of Iran's 2009 revolution that, instead of electing a new regime, the Iranian people were rewarded with a "purge and a coup." The purpose of engagement has been to stimulate a debate inside Iran. Unfortunately, "that fight has been had" and the hardliners won. "Engagement, which was never a sure thing," he declared, "has [now] become at best a long-shot and maybe even a pipe dream." In this changed environment, the United States will be looking at containment, not engagement. Pollack described this as a second irony, because isolation and containment had been proposed by the Bush administration and promptly rejected by many experts as ill-advised.

Michael O'Hanlon, director of research and senior fellow, foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, discussed three theoretical military options available to the United States in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat: air strikes, a ground invasion, and a naval blockade. He was careful – indeed, emphatic – to withhold his endorsement of any military action today, but suggested that possible circumstances could compel the United States to resort to force in one or more of the ways he discussed.

"The Iranians have seen in the Obama administration a dedicated commitment to engagement," explained Danielle Pletka, vice president, foreign and defense policy studies at AEI. "What I think they haven't seen," she immediately added, "is a dedicated commitment to eradicating Iran's nuclear weapons program." The White House's obsession with diplomatic process and its disconcerting readiness to shift and re-shift the "red lines" for Iran have delivered an over-confident regime that will likely be impervious even to economic sanctions.

Pletka concluded by reintroducing the military option, which she described as "fraught" as a first resort. She reminded the audience, however, that a nuclear Iran committed to the destruction of Israel (a goal the Iranian leadership has publicly stated) is patently unacceptable. "If the choice is between that and the military option, suddenly the military option starts to look a lot less unattractive."



View complete summary.
Speaker biographies

Jackson Diehl is the deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, where he writes a biweekly column that focuses on foreign affairs. He joined the Washington Post in 1978, working on the metropolitan staff. Three years later he joined the foreign desk, where he worked as a correspondent in Buenos Aires, Warsaw, and Jerusalem. Mr. Diehl is the recipient of the Inter-American Press Association Award for Interpretive Journalism for his coverage of South America and the Overseas Press Association's Bob Considine Award.

Michael E. O'Hanlon is director of research and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in Iraq, North Korea, U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, homeland security, and American foreign policy. Mr. O'Hanlon is the senior scholar responsible for the Iraq Index, an online resource through the Brooking's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. O'Hanlon is a former defense budget analyst who advised members of Congress on military spending.

Danielle Pletka served for ten years as a senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Since coming to AEI, Ms. Pletka has developed a conference series on rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq, directed a project on democracy in the Arab world, and designed a project to track global business in Iran. She recently edited a publication on dissent and reform in the Arab World and coauthored a report on Iranian influence in the Levant, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Ms. Pletka comments frequent on foreign and defense policy issues on television and in major American newspapers.

Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. An expert in national security, the military, and the Persian Gulf, he was previously the director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council and for seven years he served as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA. He is the author of A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (Random House, 2008).

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Cosponsored by the Brookings Institution
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