WASHINGTON – Today, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will deliver the keynote address at a conference at the Middle East Institute on “Challenges in U.S.-Iran Policy.” Senator Coons’ opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, are included in full below. Click here to view video of the event.

Excerpts from the prepared remarks:

“The Iranian government has taken advantage of the travel ban to accelerate its efforts to promote anti-Americanism. Since the ban was announced, close observers of Iran have reported a widespread rise in anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people, who previously held a much more favorable view of the United States.”

“On June 15th, by a vote of 98 to 2, [the Senate] passed a bill to impose non-nuclear sanctions on Iran and Russia. I was proud to be an original cosponsor of this bill, which will impose terrorism-related sanctions on the IRGC, hold Iran’s government accountable for its human rights record, and allow for sanctions on supporters of Iran’s ballistic missile activity. This bill will take real steps to punish Iran for its unacceptable non-nuclear behavior without undermining the JCPOA. The House should pass it and President Trump should sign it into law immediately.”

“The United States will always maintain our right to use military force to protect our interests and the security of regional allies like Israel. But war with Iran is not inevitable, and regime change in Iran should not be the policy of the United States.

“For those who suggest such a course [in Iran], I urge them to be wary, particularly given our track record in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Regime change would be unlikely to succeed. Let’s not stumble into a new conflict while trying to manage our anti-ISIS campaign, the North Korean threat, the rise of China, and an increasingly belligerent Russia. President Trump himself called regime change dangerous and wasteful during his campaign. If we did pursue this ill-advised approach, would terrorist groups fill the vacuum created by instability inside Iran? What would be the impact on markets and the free flow of energy from the Persian Gulf? More importantly, what would be the composition of the next regime? Would an alternative government be stable? Would it be seen as legitimate by the Iranian people, or would it be seen as a Western-backed puppet? There are far more questions with bad answers or no answers at all.  If our recent experience teaches us anything, it’s that we should consider what follows the use of military force in the Middle East and approach these decisions with humility.”

“Calls for regime change or war in Iran are reckless. A collision course with Iran is not inevitable: we can avoid stumbling into military conflict. We should preserve all diplomatic channels – and exhaust all options before using military force.”

REMARKS AS PREPARED: Challenges in U.S.-Iran Policy

Sen. Chris Coons

The Middle East Institute

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Thank you to the Middle East Institute, and thank you, Jerry [Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein]. You served your country and the State Department with distinction for more than 40 years, culminating with your admirable service as our Ambassador to Yemen and as a top official in the Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Thank you to those of you who are serving or who have served at the State Department as civil servants or foreign service officers. We’re grateful for all that you do to advocate on behalf of U.S. interests and values. I’d also like thank members of the diplomatic corps and members of the press here today.

This afternoon, I want to talk about Iran’s recent behavior, and U.S. policy towards Iran. I’ll discuss the current status of the relationship, and how we have reached a state of increased tension. I will lay out some policy recommendations and make the case that war between our nations is not inevitable, and calls for regime change at this time are ill-advised.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have increased steadily since President Trump took office in January. Both Iranian and U.S. government actions have contributed to this dynamic.

Let’s begin by reviewing Iran’s behavior in recent months. The Iranian government has continued its ballistic missile tests. The regime regularly violates the human rights of its people. Its leaders continue to call for Israel’s destruction and test just how close it can move proxy fighters to Israel’s borders with Syria.

In addition to Syria, the IRGC Quds Force continues to foment instability in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Iran continues to fund Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with tens of millions of dollars.

As Ramadan ended, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called the fight against Zionism obligatory for all Muslims. Last month, Iran marked “Quds day” with large rallies at which protestors chanted, “Death to Israel, Death to America.”

In May and June, U.S. military forces in the region – both in Syria and the Gulf – found themselves in close calls with Iranian ships, aircraft, and proxy forces. On May 19th, Iran held elections that were neither free nor fair.

Each of these destabilizing and dangerous actions has contributed to increased friction between the United States and Iran.

Before we consider how the Trump administration has responded, it’s important to acknowledge that the administration’s strategy review towards Iran is ongoing. As I understand it, the review is occurring in a thorough, professional manner. But we’ve already received some indications of the way the President and his team intend to approach Iran.

I believe the administration has taken appropriate action to defend U.S. military assets and our partners in Syria and the Gulf.  The April 6th strike on Assad’s military facilities appears to have deterred additional chemical weapons attacks. These actions demonstrate to Iran and its proxies that there are consequences for challenging American military operations and international norms.

More generally, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense rightly caution against walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, at least for now. I believe they are correct in concluding that upholding the JCPOA and condemning Iran’s behavior are not mutually exclusive.

But I have grave concerns about how the Trump administration has handled other aspects of its engagement with Iran.

Just seven days into his term, President Trump fulfilled a campaign promise by putting in place a ban on individuals traveling to the United States from Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries. The Iranian government has taken advantage of the travel ban to accelerate its efforts to promote anti-Americanism. Since the ban was announced, close observers of Iran have reported a widespread rise in anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people, who previously held a much more favorable view of the United States.

The President further worsened tensions following the June 7th ISIS attack on the Iranian parliament. In his statement following the attack, President Trump said that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” It was not constructive to suggest that Iran invites ISIS attacks because of its government’s actions.

More broadly, President Trump has taken a one-sided approach to the region. His visit to Riyadh and reflexive support of Saudi Arabia in its feud with Qatar are counterproductive. Leaders in Tehran are boasting about how the GCC feud is weakening the anti-Iran bloc in the Gulf and unnecessarily distracting our Arab partners. The crisis hurts our ability to respond to Iranian aggression in the Middle East.

There’s no doubt that many of Iran’s actions are inexcusable and require a clear-eyed response from the United States. But it’s also apparent from the examples I’ve cited that President Trump’s actions have contributed to an increasingly tense state of U.S.-Iran relations.

The question before us is how we craft a policy toward Iran that pushes back against its bad actions while avoiding counterproductive moves or inadvertent steps towards greater conflict.

The Senate has already taken action to respond to Iranian aggression. On June 15th, by a vote of 98 to 2, we passed a bill to impose non-nuclear sanctions on Iran and Russia. I was proud to be an original cosponsor of this bill, which will impose terrorism-related sanctions on the IRGC, hold Iran’s government accountable for its human rights record, and allow for sanctions on supporters of Iran’s ballistic missile activity.

This bill will take real steps to punish Iran for its unacceptable non-nuclear behavior without undermining the JCPOA. The House should pass it and President Trump should sign it into law immediately.

That brings me to the JCPOA, which was agreed to almost exactly two years ago. I supported the agreement, though I haven’t shied away from pointing out where I thought it should be strengthened.

Despite its imperfections, the JCPOA has so far achieved its fundamental goal of rolling back and delaying Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement remains in the best interest of the United States because it keeps our allies on our side. It helps us gather valuable intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. It allows for intrusive inspections. It sustains limited, useful communications channels with the Iranian government.

Let me speak specifically about the importance of these channels. For decades, the United States and Iran did not communicate directly, leading to misunderstandings and unintended escalation. I’m skeptical that the channels created by the JCPOA can singlehandedly achieve diplomatic breakthroughs, but they’re critical to preventing miscommunication between the United States and Iran.

We can also use these channels proactively. We should use them to make sure the Iranian government understands what behavior we find unacceptable. That includes violations of the JCPOA, provocative actions against our military assets in the Gulf, attacks against Israel, and Iran’s ongoing support for the Assad regime. We should also use these communications channels to press Iran to release detained and missing Americans, including Robert Levinson and Siamak and Baquer Namazi.

The JCPOA also buys us time while Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon. Rather than tear up the deal, as some have suggested, the United States should work with our allies – and countries like China and Russia – to negotiate a successor agreement that will expand upon the current inspections regime. Some of the deal’s restrictions expire as soon as eight years from now, so we need to think today about how we’ll monitor Iran’s nuclear program after the deal’s provisions sunset.

Yet sanctioning Iran and upholding the JCPOA do not constitute a fully-formed Iran policy. A third pillar must involve maintaining and enhancing cooperation with our regional partners. We have no more important regional partner than Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East. We must sustain our cooperation with Israel on missile defense and fully fund its security assistance.

Other Middle Eastern security partners, such as the United Arab Emirates, have contributed to our fight against Iranian proxies, ISIS, and Al Qaeda. We should continue to support them. If other countries are willing to partner in a manner consistent with our respect for the law of armed conflict and human rights, we should explore new ways to work together.

Finally, in our rhetoric as well as our actions, the United States must continue to distinguish the Iranian people from their government. Rather than banning most Iranians from traveling to the United States or blaming them when they are victims of a terrorist attack, Americans should maintain our support for the Iranian people.

In May, Iranians once again endured long lines to vote in an election, even when they knew it would be neither free nor fair. The people of Iran welcomed members of the U.S. wrestling team with open arms shortly after district courts put a pause on President Trump’s travel ban. The Iranian people must know and trust that our concerns are with their government – not their culture or their religion.

Before I conclude, I’d like to sound a note of caution about recent calls for the United States to pursue regime change in Iran.

The United States will always maintain our right to use military force to protect our interests and the security of regional allies like Israel. But war with Iran is not inevitable, and regime change in Iran should not be the policy of the United States.

For those who suggest such a course, I urge them to be wary, particularly given our track record in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Regime change would be unlikely to succeed. Let’s not stumble into a new conflict while trying to manage our anti-ISIS campaign, the North Korean threat, the rise of China, and an increasingly belligerent Russia. President Trump himself called regime change dangerous and wasteful during his campaign.

If we did pursue this ill-advised approach, would terrorist groups fill the vacuum created by instability inside Iran? What would be the impact on markets and the free flow of energy from the Persian Gulf?

More importantly, what would be the composition of the next regime? Would an alternative government be stable? Would it be seen as legitimate by the Iranian people, or would it be seen as a Western-backed puppet? There are far more questions with bad answers or no answers at all.

If our recent experience teaches us anything, it’s that we should consider what follows the use of military force in the Middle East and approach these decisions with humility.

Let me conclude with a final thought. I do not trust Iran’s government, and I vehemently oppose its behavior in the region. But we can respond effectively – by passing and enforcing tough non-nuclear sanctions – while maintaining limited engagement with the Iranian government and demonstrating our support for the Iranian people.

Today, the United States and our partners are showing our commitment to non-proliferation in the face of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear tests. I believe there is value in enforcing the JCPOA and demonstrating a viable, diplomatic alternative to the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Calls for regime change or war in Iran are reckless. A collision course with Iran is not inevitable: we can avoid stumbling into military conflict. We should preserve all diplomatic channels – and exhaust all options before using military force.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. Jerry, I look forward to our conversation.

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