Congressional Dispatches: Senate Hearing on JCPOA Implications for Middle East Policy

Kayvan Vakili, AIC Outreach Coordinator

On Wednesday August 5, 2015, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held its final hearing on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before the start of Congress’s August recess. The senators weighed testimony from Michael Singh, senior fellow and managing director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Dr. Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to evaluate the impact of the JCPOA on US policy in the Middle East.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) opened the hearing by voicing his concerns of losing “leverage” to contain Iran’s activities within the region after the removal of sanctions.

Earlier that day, members of the committee met with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano on the international organization’s role in inspecting Iran’s nuclear program. Senator Corker was candid in his dissatisfaction of the proceeding, saying, “I don’t how anyone sitting in that room could come out feeling more assured.”

Outlining recommendations to reassure America's regional allies, Mr. Singh and Dr. Pollack mentioned the importance of a sound resolution to the Syrian conflict that abolishes the Assad regime. While citing possibilities to “push back” and “deter” Iranians in the region, Dr. Pollack asserted that “Syria is the place to do it.” Dr. Pollack added that “the JCPOA should come with a new commitment from the US to provide meaningful support to the Syrian opposition to demonstrate to our allies that we are willing to stand up to the Iranians and to the Iranians that we are not going to back down.”

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) presented his primary regional security concerns, many of which would recur throughout the session. “What is the impact of a possibly more unrestrained Iran on Gulf countries and Israel?” he asked. “How will Iran’s capability to legally enrich impact the desire for regional players to match Iran’s enrichment program? How will the balance of power in the MIddle East be impacted.”

Asked by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) how regional players would respond to a strengthened Iran, Mr. Singh and Dr. Pollack agreed with the Senator’s explicit concern of an arms race in the region. However, they disagreed on the role of the U.S. in this circumstance. “I don’t think regional powers would look to what type of relationship materializes between the U.S. and Iran, because that requires betting on the future,” said Mr. Singh. Dr. Pollack rebutted, “This is where I disagree with Mr. Singh. I disagree on the role of the U.S. I see the U.S. as the critical intervening variable here.” Dr. Pollack added, “In regards to the concerns our allies have expressed, the question is what do we do.”

Despite the focus of the hearing revolving around the JCPOA’s implications on U.S. policy in the Middle East, it was clear that Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon was at the fore of the Senators’ minds. Dr. Pollack reassured the SFRC that “for 10-12 years this is a good deal, but after that it is a bet…”