by Emily Shwake
The first thing Ilan Berman told the crowd was: “You do not want to read this book.” This introduction was a bit misleading considering that this month’s reception, hosted by the Jewish Policy Center, was for his newly published book, Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power. Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, consults for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other governmental offices on his area of expertise: the Middle East, Russia, and Central Asia. His current work focuses more specifically on radical Islam and Iran.
While Berman acknowledged that the recently approved Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—widely known as the Iran Deal—does create greater transparency and give the United States better oversight of the nuclear program, he believes that it does not deter Iran from what he sees as its mission to spread Islamism and to maintain the power of the Shi’ite minority in the Middle East. “Iran sees itself as the center of the geopolitical universe,” Berman said. He sees their intent to expand their mission as the largest threat they pose because there are no obstacles large enough to deter their progress. The Obama Administration hopes that the JCPOA will discourage Iran’s behavior as an ideological regime or its support of radical regimes in the developing world; Berman, however, predicts that the deal will only confirm their ambition. “The Iranian Revolution was, from the very start, intended as an export commodity,” he said. He emphasized that even while constrained by sanctions and outside pressure, Iran has still been still able to act as an international superpower to anti-Western terrorist organizations.
But Berman’s anxieties about the deal, are not concentrated on Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions relief, to him, presents a much larger and more imminent danger. He anticipates that the money the Iranians will receive might create more of a danger than even the possibility of a nuclear bomb. Iran will receive an estimated $100 billion through the oil revenue currently frozen in Asia and Europe until they comply with the demands of the deal (a number based on the estimates provided by the president and the Treasury Department). This amount, Berman explained, is equivalent to several Marshall Plans (the aid the Truman Administration supplied to 17 economies in Europe for post-World War II reconstruction) and a quarter of Iran’s current annual GDP ($415 billion).
Berman explained that this financial boost will allow Iran the opportunity to not only reinvigorate their economy and domestic reconstruction (as is the intention of the United States), but will also allow them to rebuild their military and to become a patron to the many terrorist regimes that it currently supports (the U.S. State Department has considered them to be a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984). Berman sees Iran’s interests in the disadvantaged countries of Latin America as the biggest Iran-backed threat to the United States. This is particularly because of their close relationship with Venezuela and the late Hugo Chavez, but they have permeated other countries in the region, too. In his book, Berman writes, “Today, Iran boasts an official diplomatic presence in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela.” He enumerated three different terrorism attempts Iran has made against the United States in the past decade through their relationships with Latin American nations. “Given the scope of the cash infusion Iran is supposed to receive, even if Iran spends just 10 percent of the money allocated to support international terrorism—which I think we would all agree is not an inconceivable notion—we will see Iran’s budget for international terrorism expand as much as threefold,” he said.
Berman believes this support will not only strain the American defense plan, but also Israel’s. He emphasized that the bomb is not what Israel has to fear at this time. Instead, he anticipates that Iran’s strategy will be to overwhelm Israeli Air Defense Command. The Islamic Republic currently has an arsenal of ballistic missiles that possess a range large enough to put Israel in striking distance. These missiles are a lot cheaper to build than it is for Israel to fund the Iron Dome and David’s Sling Missile. Berman believes that with the sanctions relief, Iran will be able to fund an attack program for long enough that an “economic attrition cycle” will set in in Israel and make it impossible to sustain the defense programs.
Berman maintained optimism in the face of this picture of impending doom. “We can’t mandate Congress to care,” he said. “But we can propose suggestions and explain unequivocally that the passage of the JCPOA is not the end of the conversation; it is the beginning of the story.” He maintained that there is a lot the United States can do in anticipation of Iran’s behavior, such as designate the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, as the United States did during World War II with the SS. Congress can also provide greater support for Israel’s missile defense program and their preparations against Iranian aggression.
“It is easy to be gloom and doom and to lament about the nonexistence of American strategy,” Berman said cheerfully and conclusively. “It is a lot harder to game out where this is going and try to get ahead of that.” While this sentiment isn’t all that hopeful, Iran’s Deadly Ambition offers a guide to navigating the possible threats of Iran’s radicalism, its funding of terrorism, and its aggression toward Israel and the United States.