Washington, DC – While uprisings in Arab states have dominated much of Washington’s conversation about the Middle East this year, Geoffrey Kemp of the Center for National Interest predicted that Iran’s nuclear program, and the potential for U.S. military confrontation, will likely return as a major issue in the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign.
Speaking at a Woodrow Wilson Center panel focused on how the changing Middle East will affect U.S.-Iran dynamics, Kemp said that the Iranian nuclear issue will increase in prominence when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington in May to address a joint session of Congress and speak at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference.
“He now has a very friendly House of Representatives with people in powerful positions who are going to be very supportive of him and it is inconceivable to him that the combination of Chairman Ros-Lehtinen and 8,000 AIPAC supporters isn’t going to push the Iranian issue to the top,” Kemp said. “And this will come as we enter into the presidential campaign.”
Also speaking on the panel was Ellen Laipson, President and CEO of the Stimson Center, who reasoned that the shifting dynamics in the Middle East could result in a new strategic alignment between Turkey, Egypt, Iran that could actually be a “net positive” for the United States.
“Instead of seeing U.S. and Iran as this kind of awkward competition for regional hegemony, as if they are the only two that have that level of power projection…a region in which Turkey, Iran and a revitalized Egypt are all important leaders, in my view presents more positives than negatives for how the United States sees its own presence in the region,” said Laipson. Such a dynamic, she said, could present opportunities for increased stability and improved U.S. and Iran relations.
But Kemp said confrontation with Iran would likely dominate Washington’s conversation going forward. “I think the sanctions have been relatively effective in making life much more difficult for the Iranian economy, for Iranian bankers and particularly, for the Iranian energy sector.” In the near term, Kemp predicted “much more of the same” in Obama’s Iran policy, saying, “that will mean tougher sanctions, it will mean working with the Europeans, and they will not take force off the table.”
Kemp insisted that the military option must remain on the table but argued the United States cannot “preemptively use force against the Iranians” since it will isolate the United States from Europeans and result in an increase in oil prices. However, Kemp said, “Don’t rule it out. Countries do stupid things in international relations.”