Foreign Policy and Outreach Intern
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a victory for efforts to establish new diplomatic channels between the U.S. and Iran and prevent an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf, the House passed an amendment on Thursday to require the Pentagon to consider options for negotiating an Incidents at Sea Agreement with Iran and other countries operating in the Persian Gulf.
The measure was introduced by Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and was voted unanimously to be included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that authorizes Department of Defense programs and spending. The measure was strongly supported by the National Iranian American Council, which advocated for its passage. It will now go to the Senate and must be passed by both chambers before being signed into law.
The success of the measure in overcoming partisan obstacles is particularly meaningful given the current political landscape in Washington. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have increased in past months and much of Washington has appeared more oriented towards confrontation than dialogue between the two countries. As a candidate, Donald Trump even advocated for sinking Iranian ships if an incident occurred in the Persian Gulf. An Incidents at Sea agreement would help ensure that no such action would be taken and an all out war would be avoided.
In January 2016, U.S. Navy command boats inadvertently entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf and were seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy. Through personal diplomacy between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif , the sides were able to quickly de-escalate the situation. The sailors were released within hours and a crisis was avoided. The episode, however, illustrated the need for a systematic framework to be able to resolve any possible confrontations that could arise between the two countries.
However, the departure of Secretary Kerry, and the lack of diplomatic channels between President Trump’s administration and Iranian officials, means that an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf is a major risk. Numerous incidents have occurred in recent months between American and Iranian vessels traversing the Persian Gulf, which has added urgency to concerns that a confrontation could quickly spiral out of control and even lead to a serious military confrontation between the countries.
The vote to include the Incidents at Sea agreement signifies one area where U.S. policy can shift back towards diplomatic engagement, and where the U.S. and Iran – not to mention the other parties that operate in the Persian Gulf – can pursue dialogue. The measure requires the Defense Department to produce a report on the feasibility and the advisability of negotiating an Incidents at Sea Agreement with Iran.
A similar bill, also supported by NIAC, did pass the full Congress in 2011. The resulting Pentagon report, however, was fully classified and little follow up action was possible. Under the text of the new legislation, an unclassified version of the report would also be required – which could set the stage for further efforts by Congress and outside organizations like NIAC to press for an agreement.
An incidents at sea agreement between the U.S. and Iran would not be the first time two countries with tense relations have been able to effectively maintain civil interactions for the sake of peace. In 1972 the U.S. and USSR signed such an agreement to avoid unnecessary collisions and miscalculations, which resulted in success for both sides and a reduction in the frequency of naval encounters between the two nations.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated he has no plans for negotiations with Iran and expressed favor for moving to support elements within Iran intent on regime change during testimony on the State Department budget in the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. Tillerson’s remarks are certain to ratchet up tensions with Iran, where elements remain deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions and have levied charges on ordinary citizens for alleged collaboration with hostile powers.
Tillerson’s remarks were in response to questioning from Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), a vocal supporter of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), whose members were in attendance at the briefing. Rep. Poe (R-TX) asked Tillerson whether the U.S. supports “a peaceful regime change” and whether it is U.S. policy “to lead things as they are or set up a peaceful long-term regime change.” Tillerson implied that, it was U.S. policy to move toward supporting regime change, stating the U.S. would “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of those governments.”
The Obama administration was careful to avoid associating itself definitively and publicly with efforts to topple the regime, recognizing that it could undermine the cause of the Iranian people seeking to move their government in a more moderate direction as well as opportunities for negotiations. Further, given Tillerson’s dismissal of Iran’s elections when the moderate Hassan Rouhani trounced the hardline Ebrahim Raisi, it is unlikely Tillerson is endorsing the method that Iranian voters have chosen – gradual change through participation. Such an endorsement is more likely to be a boon to groups seeking to violently overthrow the Iranian government, such as the MEK. As a result, the Trump administration could be headed toward repeating the mistakes of the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953.
On top of Tillerson’s effective endorsement of regime change, the top diplomat gave no indication that he had considered engaging Iran diplomatically. In response to a question from Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) on whether he would press his Iranian counterparts on the whereabouts of his constituent, Bob Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007, Tillerson stated “I have no current schedule to meet with the Iranians.”
Similarly, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Tillerson dismissed suggestions from Sen. Murphy to engage in direct negotiations with Iran over Yemen. According to Tillerson, “The Iranians are part of the problem…They are not directly at the table because we do not believe they have earned a seat at that table. We would like for the Iranians to end their flow of weapons to the Houthis, in particular their flow of sophisticated missiles to the Houthis. We need for them to stop supplying that, and we are working with others as to how to get their agreement to do that.”
In a further departure from the Obama administration, Tillerson ascribed hegemonic aspirations to Iran, despite the fact that it is being outspent militarily 5 to 1 by Saudi Arabia. Tillerson stated that the U.S., “must counter Iran’s aspirations of hegemony in the region.” President Obama described Iran as a regional power and urged Saudi Arabia to learn how to coexist.
However, Tillerson did decline to endorse the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization when questioned by Rep. Poe, stating, “we continually review the merits both from the standpoint of diplomatic but also from international consequences of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in its entirety as a terrorist organization.” An Iran sanctions bill that just passed the Senate (S. 722) would push the Trump administration to issue such a designation, and Poe has been pushing a similar measure in the House.
While the Iran policy review is currently still underway, Sec. Tillerson’s effective endorsement of regime change, disinterest in Iran negotiations and continued harsh rhetoric bodes ill for the administration’s yet-to-emerge strategy.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s outrageous tweetstorms following the recent terrorist attacks on London, a fissure may finally be developing between the Trump administration and certain Republican lawmakers over Trump’s Muslim ban.
Following both of Trump’s attempts to ban visas for Iranians and other targeted countries, nearly every single Democrat in Congress has sponsored legislation to repeal and defund the ban. But not one Republican has joined that effort and instead the President’s party has largely given its silent imprimatur for the ban. However, this is beginning to change.
Early this week, President Trump took to Twitter to express his frustrations, writing, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” He continued to send a barrage of tweets, stating that “the Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban” rather than the “watered down, politically correct version they submitted [to the Supreme Court].”
This past weekend, it was evident that Trump’s Republican colleagues are starting to break with him. Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Susan Collins (R-ME) both spoke to the press this weekend, arguing that a travel ban is not the best course of action for United States security. During an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Senator Blunt noted, “It’s been four months since I said they needed four months to put that [extreme vetting] in place…I think you can do that without a travel ban and hopefully we are.” Similarly, while discussing the ban on “Face the Nation”, Senator Collins stated that while she supports a more rigorous vetting process, she does “believe that the very broad ban that [Trump] has proposed is not the right way to go.”
Collins has voiced her opposition to Trump and his policies since before the election. In January, she asserted that “there should never, never be a religious test for refugee status and people practicing a particular religion should not be subject to a higher burden of proof than those who adhere to another religion,” and referred to the policy as “likely unconstitutional.” But many in the Republican caucus expressed opposition during the presidential campaign to Trump’s calls for a Muslim ban. Everyone from Paul Ryan to Mike Pence criticized Trump’s pledge to ban Muslims as a candidate, but most have changed their tune since he was elected.
These new statements illustrate that perhaps we are approaching a breaking point and, at least for some Republicans, they have had enough. Still, while these comments against the ban are a step in the right direction, no Republican has supported legislative action to actually halt the ban. And they have not yet said anything about the administration’s effort to create a framework to systematically discriminate against Muslims – effectively a “backdoor” Muslim ban that is being put in place.
The existing vetting process for obtaining a US immigration visa is already highly extensive and can take months to complete. Trump’s new “extreme vetting” proposal now in place aims to correct this allegedly inadequate system by ensuring that all new immigrants “share our values.” This includes measures such as providing five years worth of social media history. Since the president has made it clear that he believes “there is no real assimilation” with Muslim immigrants, this extreme vetting program seems to serve as a means to drive down the number of people from a Muslim background in the United States, rather than keeping out terrorists. It is imperative that congressional Republicans and Democrats alike ensure that extreme vetting is not used as a cover for reaching the same ends as the travel ban.