The Iran deal will galvanize al Qaeda and the Islamic State. What should Congressional Democrats do about it?
America’s engagement in the broader Middle East has been a long, painful, and bipartisan lesson in the law of unintended consequences. Our support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan contributed to the rise of al Qaeda. Neither our invasion of Iraq nor our subsequent withdrawal went according to plan. We tried “leading from behind” only to watch Libya turn into a jihadist playground while the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) established a caliphate larger than Indiana.
If implemented, the Iran deal will likely create even more unintended consequences, such as an enriched and well-armed Iran that doubles-down on global terrorism and regional proxy conflicts. This is a key concern of those opposed to the deal. The deal’s advocates disagree, arguing that it could instead create opportunities for the U.S. and Iran to collaborate on issues of mutual concern, such as the battle against IS, and that it could eventually moderate the Iranian regime through greater international integration. They also argue that rejecting the deal would not improve the U.S. bargaining position, but would instead create a host of dangerous unintended consequences, such as a diplomatically isolated U.S. and an unconstrained Iran.
This tangled web we are weaving will create another very dangerous unintended consequence – one that has received little or no attention in the debate over the deal. The plain terms of the deal plus the suggestion of U.S. rapprochement with Iran have, not surprisingly, left the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) quite uneasy. To gain the GCC’s endorsement for the deal and hedge its bet on future Iranian moderation, the Administration has promised the GCC members advanced weapons, training, and intelligence support.
Our increased support for Sunni regimes will not go unnoticed by al Qaeda or IS. Islamic terrorists have divided the world into “near enemies” (e.g., Sunni regimes in the Middle East) and the “far enemy” — the U.S. Terrorist groups view the U.S. as the far enemy because we provide political, economic, and military support to the near enemy regimes. Al Qaeda, which is still quite active, has consistently invoked U.S. support for Sunni regimes to justify its attacks on the U.S. There is scholarly debate about whether IS has adopted al Qaeda’s emphasis on attacking the far enemy, with the Charlie Hebdo attacks signaling a turn in this direction. But even if IS has not fully embraced the al Qaeda vision, it has inspired and sanctioned attacks in the U.S. and Europe, as we were just reminded by the events in France. Moreover, as western fighters leave Iraq and Syria and return home, there is great concern that they will carry out attacks under the IS banner. Thus, even if attacking the U.S. is not #1 on IS’s “to do list,” it’s still on the list.
Unfortunately, our increased support for the GCC members will strengthen the “far enemy” terrorist narrative, thereby providing more fodder for al Qaeda’s and IS’s highly-effective propaganda and recruiting machines. We can therefore expect even more global recruits to travel to conflict zones, undergo training, and fight or carry out suicide attacks. Eventually, some survivors will return home to carry out attacks. And there will be those who never travel abroad, but instead carry out attacks at home inspired by the far enemy narrative and slick propaganda of al Qaeda and IS.
At least these negative unintended consequences are predictable. What can Congress do about them?
Given that undecided Democrats will determine the fate of the deal, one option would be for this group to drive a hard bargain with the Administration, seeking to mitigate the negative unintended consequences of the deal before committing to “yes” votes. They could require the Administration to answer important questions for the record before the final vote: If we are going to support the GCC members (and thus perpetuate the far enemy narrative that terrorist groups use to recruit new members), then what additional steps will we insist these regimes take to cut off the flow of their citizens to al Qaeda and IS? What additional measures will we and our allies implement to prevent IS and al Qaeda recruits from traveling into and out of conflict zones? Are we satisfied that the GCC members have taken adequate steps since September 11th to stop sowing the seeds of future violent extremism in the charities, mosques, and madrassas they fund? If not, what more must be done? How will we monitor and enforce progress in these areas? What is our long-term, multilateral strategy for defeating al Qaeda and IS using all elements of national power in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, recognizing that this is becoming a generational struggle and that IS’s greatest recruiting tool is its claim to hold territory? If the Administration’s answers revealed a clear plan for defeating these terror groups and mitigating the effects of a revitalized far enemy narrative, Democrats could justify a “yes” vote partly on this basis, knowing that the Republicans would engage in aggressive oversight of any commitments made by the Administration.
Democrats, however, may vote “yes” even without such a plan because of their good faith and understandable belief that the unintended consequences of killing the deal could be worse than the deal itself. But if they take this approach, they will allow themselves to be trapped in the Administration’s tangled web, voting for an imperfect deal to avoid one set of unintended consequences and thereby ushering in another. They will also contribute to the ongoing decline of Congress as an effective branch of government. We deserve more than acquiescence from Congressional Democrats. Before voting yes, they have an obligation to the Country to explain how they will mitigate the deal’s key flaws. If they do not, the last unintended consequence of the Iran deal may be to further cement Congress’ institutional irrelevance.