How Think Tanks Influence the Debate on Iran
The concept of the think tank originated in the United States with independent research institutes such as the Brookings Institution, which was founded in 1916 by a St. Louis businessman named Robert Brookings. Brookings established the institute with the goal of providing research in the fields of foreign policy, economics, and development. The actual term “think tank” was first applied in 1959 to the Center for Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California. The term has since become a catch-all for thousands of organizations around the globe with a variety of agendas, funding streams and output. In some countries, think tanks are offshoots of the government and are managed by officials. The Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran, which is affiliated with the Iranian Foreign Ministry, is one such example.
In the United States, most think tanks are privately funded by foundations and individuals, and seek to influence U.S. policymakers by publishing reports, testifying on Capitol Hill, and holding public and private events. The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff lists about 60 think tanks, mostly in Washington but some abroad, that it finds “particularly useful” in helping the department shape U.S. foreign policy.
Many U.S. think tanks, including the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are bi-partisan and do not endorse political candidates. They strive for balance in their staffing, analyses and events. However, their scholars are not barred from taking positions on contentious issues and are encouraged to put forward their ideas. Other organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress, have clear leanings to the right or to the left of the political spectrum. These entities often act as lobby groups.
During the heated debate that took place last summer in Washington over the Iran nuclear deal, a number of think tanks and other organizations sought to influence the outcome. Many of the groups in support of the deal received small grants from the Ploughshares Fund, a non-profit based in San Francisco that seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons. Ploughshares was praised in the Journal of Philanthropy for its “creative and nimble thinking” in coordinating the successful campaign in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Among the groups that received funding from Ploughshares for their work on Iran were the Atlantic Council, the Arms Control Association, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (a lobby connected with the Quakers), and J-Street (a liberal Jewish-American group).
Groups on the conservative side of the political spectrum were much better funded. These organizations included the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the powerful pro-Israeli government lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In total, they spent an estimated $40 million on anti-JCPOA advertising directed at the U.S. Congress-- a staggeringly larger sum than that spent by the pro-deal camp. In the end, however, the effort failed to convince a sufficient number of Democrats that there was a better available alternative to the JCPOA. Indeed, the JCPOA never even came up for a vote in the U.S. Senate because opponents could not muster the 60 votes required to end the debate.
The Atlantic Council, which was founded in 1961 to promote U.S. ties with Europe, did not take a position on the JCPOA. However, a bipartisan Iran Task Force organized in February, 2010 under the leadership of then-Atlantic Council chairman (and later Defense Secretary) Chuck Hagel and former Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat, did issue a statement in July, 2015. It gave qualified endorsement to the JCPOA while urging “special vigilance against any violation of its terms.” The Task Force also organized two private, bipartisan dinners in Washington in August, 2015 with Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, a key member of the U.S. negotiating team. Similar events were held in New York in the fall with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo, and with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
The Task Force, which has since evolved into a broader Future of Iran Initiative, seeks to increase the JCPOA’s chances for success and build on its model for conflict resolution. The Initiative also tries to promote a deeper understanding of Iran through reports and panel discussions such as a recent symposium on the implementation of the JCPOA that was addressed by two key administration officials – Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes and John Smith, the acting head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control(OFAC).
In large part because the U.S. and Iran have lacked formal diplomatic relations since 1980, there is a dearth of expertise and knowledge about Iran in Washington foreign policy circles. Members of Congress, in particular, tend to view Iran through the lens of official Iranian anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric. At the Atlantic Council, we strive to show Americans a more nuanced and realistic perspective on Iran by sponsoring events that feature individuals who have had first-hand, recent experience in Iran and who can speak to all aspects of the Islamic Republic.
Among the events the Initiative has held this year were a discussion on sports diplomacy, showcasing visits to Iran by U.S. wrestlers, a panel on hi tech startups and the innovation economy in Iran, and a discussion on the ramifications of the Iran-Saudi rift on regional conflicts. The Initiative also put out a balanced report on Iran’s human rights policies and organized a discussion that included experts on other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia. The Initiative has also hosted Iranian officials, including Valiollah Seif, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, for private discussions about the Iranian economy and the impact of the JCPOA. For the remainder of this year, the Initiative is planning events on environmental challenges in Iran’s Hamoun wetlands, the experiences of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in Iran, and the country’s contemporary art scene. The Initiative also publishes a blog, IranInsight, with articles in both English and Farsi.
While there are other think tanks in Washington that have held events on the nuclear deal or Iran’s regional role, the Initiative is unique in its wide-angle view of the country. We feel we are performing an important service by acting as a bridge between two cultures that have been divided for far too long.
Photo Credit: Atlantic Council