last updated: April 26, 2016
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- American Foreign Policy Council: Vice President
- Ariel Center: Contributing Expert
- National Defense University: Adjunct Professor for International Law and Global Security
- Committee on the Present Danger: Member
- Journal of International Security Affairs: Editor
- Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs: Former Research Associate
- American University School of International Service: Graduate Instructor
- Missouri State University: Defense and Strategic Studies, Associated Faculty
- CIA, Department of Defense: Consultant
- Brandeis University: B.A., Political Science
- American University (Washington, DC): M.A., International Politics
- Washington College of Law: J.D.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) and editor of the Journal of International Security Affairs, a publication of the neoconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. A frequently cited observer of Middle East and Central Asian affairs, Berman has been associated with a number of policy groups that have pushed an expansive “war on terror” and a hawkish approach to Iran in particular.
Berman, a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal who is often called on to testify before Congress on national security issues, was named by Sen. Ted Cruz as a foreign policy advisor to his 2016 presidential campaign.
Berman has long advocated for an aggressive U.S. posture on Iran and has ridiculed efforts to engage Tehran. He vocally opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, arguing that the deal in effect gives funds to a terror state and fails to do enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In an op-ed for USA Today published after the deal was completed, Berman compared the deal to the Marshall Plan, wildly arguing that the agreement to unblock billions of dollars in oil revenue was “designed to serve as nothing less than a Marshall Plan for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
Before the Iran deal was concluded, Berman argued that the Obama administration’s Iran sanctions effort did not go far enough, particularly since companies in countries like Russia and China can often work around sanctions. “More often than not, the most egregious violators are companies headquartered in countries that are close U.S. allies or represent key strategic relationships for the United States, such as China and Russia,” he wrote with coauthor Andrew Davenport. “Fully implementing U.S. sanctions would require the political will to persist through a temporary downturn in those ties.”
Responding to Berman and Davenport’s claims, a writer for the Daily Beast contended that there was a logical problem with their argument: “If the Obama administration won’t hurt the Iranian economy, then how come the Iranian economy is hurting so bad?” He added: What Berman and Davenport seem to want is not ‘smart sanctions’ … but blanket sanctions—the kind that saw infant mortality in Iraq rise threefold in the 1990s.”
Since the Iran deal has been concluded, many observers have lauded the sanctions regime as having been key to bringing Iran to the negotiating table.
Berman is well connected to the neoconservative advocacy community. He is a frequent contributor to the Middle East Forum (MEF), was listed as a member of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), and served as a contributing expert for the Ariel Center, an Israel-based think tank closely aligned with the pro-Israel right in the United States.
Track Record on Iran
Berman has a long track record of promoting aggressive U.S. policies on Iran. In 2003, for instance, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he argued in the right-wing National Review that although the “battle for Iraq” was not yet over, the United States should consider “more regime change” in the region, where he said there is “an opening in Iran.” Arguing that “Washington’s early successes have put to rest any lingering doubts about U.S. capabilities or American resolve,” Berman wrote that U.S. policymakers “should take stock of the fact that their gains [in Iraq] could decisively tip the scales in favor of democracy in Iraq’s eastern neighbor. And if it is serious about translating its achievements in Iraq into a larger regional strategy, the Bush administration should clearly articulate its commitment to change in Tehran.”
In discussing options on Iran, Berman often cites the Jackson-Vanik amendment as a potentially useful approach. A cornerstone of neoconservative advocacy during the 1970s, Jackson-Vanik was an amendment to a 1974 U.S. trade bill that pressed the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration by threatening trade relations. According to Berman, the United States could use a similar tactic to threaten the Iranian regime. Citing the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for the “crime” of adultery, Berman argued in July 2010 that the Iranian government’s eventual decision to stay the execution was due to international pressure, which he argued demonstrated that the regime was susceptible to external pressure from the west.
He wrote: “The echoes of the Cold War are unmistakable. Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. altered the way the Soviet Union treated its own population by leveraging the free market. That initiative—dubbed ‘Jackson-Vanik’ after its two main cosponsors, Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Democratic Rep. Charles Vanik—linked most-favored-nation trading status for the Soviet Union to a liberalization of Moscow’s emigration policies. Eager to engage in commerce with the West, the Kremlin loosened restrictions on travel, granting freedom to a generation of Soviet dissidents. In the process, it laid the groundwork for glasnost, perestroika, and the fall of the Soviet Union itself. Can the same be accomplished with Iran? It’s still too early to tell. But Mrs. Ashtiani’s case suggests that the international community has more leverage over Iran’s internal conduct than commonly assumed. It is up to the West to use that opening wisely, to craft a human rights policy that rolls back repression within the Islamic Republic.”
A frequent invitee to congressional sessions covering Middle East and terrorism issues, Berman consistently advocates U.S. intervention in the Middle East, though he argues the United States should be cautious about militarily intervention in places like Iran. In 2007 testimony to the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, Berman argued: “Today, policymakers, experts, and analysts have focused their attentions on what are essentially three options. Some have come to believe that the optimal way to deal with the Iranian regime’s runaway nuclear ambitions is to reach some sort of negotiated accommodation. Others have concluded that Iran’s atomic effort constitutes a casus belli that warrants the use of force. Still others believe the ascendance of a nuclear or nuclear-ready Iran represents a benign, even beneficial, turn of events, and that no action at all is needed. None of these approaches, however, amount to a serious strategy.”
Regarding the argument that the United States should seek to broker a “grand bargain” with Tehran, Berman argued that one of the main “dangers of dialogue” was demographics. By seeking to reach a deal with the current regime, he said, the United States risks alienating a younger generation of Iranians, pointing to the fact that two-thirds of the population is under 35. “In the next 5-10 years,” he argued, “irrespective of what transpires on the nuclear front, the current leadership will give way to a new ruling order—one that is, at the very least, more predisposed to partnership with the United States and the West than the country’s current rulers. Given these realities, a ‘grand bargain’ with the current leadership could well yield tactical, short-term benefits, but the long-term costs would be enormous: the alienation of Iran’s young, pro-Western population, a vibrant constituency that will ultimately determine the political disposition of that country.”
Instead, Berman argued that Washington needs to “think creatively” about designing a new approach to Iran that would combine several core elements: improved intelligence; a diplomatic approach strengthened by working closely with China and Russia; improved counterproliferation programs aimed at making sure Tehran does not share weapons technology with other states or non-state actors and keeping it from importing technology it does not have; bolstering economic sanctions; and improved “outreach” efforts to Iranian citizens.
He concluded: “The stakes are enormous; without a serious plan to blunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the United States in the near future will indeed be faced with just three choices: capitulation, confrontation, or marginalization. For now, however, there is still time to prevent American interests in the Middle East from becoming the victim of Iran’s successes. It is my sincere hope that the U.S. government uses it wisely.”
The issues Berman addressed in his 2007 testimony were variations on themes he has focused on for years. At an October 2005 briefing for the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, Berman argued: “The fundamental problem facing the United States is that Iran’s ‘nuclear clock’ is ticking much faster than its ‘regime change clock.’ Altering that equation—both through initiatives that delay and derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions and through those that empower opposition forces inside and outside of the Islamic Republic—should be the starting point for any serious American strategy.”
On September 28, 2006, Berman was part of a chorus of hawkish, “pro-Israel” specialists who debriefed the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation on the alleged threats posed by Hezbollah. Describing the purported “worldwide threat” posed by Hezbollah, Berman argued: “The war on terror so far has done nothing to diminish Hezbollah’s international stature. To the contrary, over the past five years Iran has deepened its assistance to the Shiite militia, enabling the group to commence a landmark strategic expansion.” Berman concluded that U.S. policymakers would do “well to remember the dictum of Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah: ‘Death to America is not a slogan. Death to America is a policy, a strategy, and a vision.'”
Berman is also a frequent writer and media pundit, contributing articles to the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, appearing on radio and television programs, and authoring books on the Middle East and terrorism. He is the author of Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); coeditor, with J. Michael Waller, of Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning beyond Totalitarian Regimes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); editor of Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007 and Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). In marketing Tehran Rising, the publisher claimed that Berman was “crystal clear” about one thing: “Washington is woefully unprepared to deal with [the] mounting peril” posed by Iran.
Berman is, according to his AFPC bio, an “expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation; he has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security issues to a range of governmental agencies and congressional offices.”
Berman is a former research associate of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and has been an associate faculty member of Missouri State University, whose Department of Defense and Strategic Studies is a stronghold for right-wing scholars.