Iran Diplomacy Through the Prism of the Syria Debate

There are three strategic themes present in the current Washington debate about Syria that are relevant to Iran policy. First, it's always darkest before the dawn when it comes to diplomacy. Second, presidents must push for results and see what their team can deliver. And third, Congress can't be counted on, but it can't be ignored either. Let's consider these themes one at a time.

It's always darkest before the dawn when it comes to diplomacy. Opportunities will always present themselves for diplomacy, but diplomacy is not linear. Different pressures at key moments, combined with creativity, can produce results. Just when we think windows are closed, new ones may open. This suggests that we must search exhaustively for those windows while recognizing that multiple interventions - or the threat of them - such as sanctions, military action, and even cultural exchange, may make the difference.

Could Secretary of State John Kerry's seemingly impromptu comments this week be one of these moments? Will the combined threat of military action and open diplomacy be the catalyst for a new opportunity to achieve our country's goals?

And what about with Iran? Will it be the Twitter charm offensive that new Iranian President Rouhani has used to mesmerize D.C. elites that becomes the catalyst for a diplomatic solution? Will it be a back channel that we're not aware of? Will it be the heightened tensions around Syria that spur a new initiative?

Presidents must push for results and see what their team can deliver. It's not all up to the president. Sometimes our government can make fatal decisions by choosing to do nothing, when subordinates don't seize the moment to deliver for the boss.

In my time at the State Department, I was surprised that after we sent troops into Iraq, which destabilized the Persian Gulf region, that we never sent Colin Powell to engage the Iranian government. We had major issues with Iran and at that moment, had leverage to exploit through our military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But we didn't exploit it. If anything, one should open up a dialogue. Look at Bashar al-Assad's bone chilling interview from this week. We - at least through the media - heard from him. It didn't cost anything and exposed him for what he is - a brutal dictator full of lies and threats, which has only strengthened the Obama administration's case for taking action. Talking to our adversaries is in our interest.

So what about taking risks for policies that advance our interests but that may generate short-term political heat?

That's where Iran comes in. On Iran, we may be coming to that moment, where those entrusted by the president to break open new opportunities will have to step out of their comfort zones to help the president achieve his goal of an Iran without a nuclear weapon.

Congress can't be counted on, but it can't be ignored either. Congress is a co-equal branch of government with the executive branch. President Obama was right - painful as it is - to go to Congress, and frankly, he had little choice. And Congress may very well, despite its leaders assurances of support, vote down President Obama's request for Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) when it comes up.

When I was an aide in Congress during the Senate debates over Iraq policy, President Bush lost on key war policy votes multiple times, but it didn't end either his presidency or his policy. It didn't even prevent the Iraq surge from moving forward. The president deserves credit for having put his faith in the system, as our country's Founding Fathers wanted it, and has gone to the people and their representatives, messy as it may all be.

So if President Obama loses on Syria, it won't be the end of his presidency, but it will severely weaken his position. That said, he can recover. After all, three years and four plus months is a very long time in political terms, and that's the amount of time he still has left on the clock. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that the Syrian people will recover - they may in fact just run for their country's borders.

Ultimately, in the case of Iran, if an AUMF fails, it may make it harder for Tehran to believe that President Obama can get a deal through Congress to repeal sanctions in the event of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, though stranger things have happened. For example, President Jimmy Carter got the Panama Canal Treaty through Congress in early 1978 with only 68 votes - the narrowest of margins -- causing a political backlash against Congress and weakening Carter. Nonetheless, he was still able to pursue international diplomatic agreements after that event, including the signing of the Camp David Accords later that year and an Egypt-Israeli peace deal a year later. Congress supported both.

Ultimately, American diplomatic success with Iran will be directly impacted by what happens on Syria policy, but perhaps not in the way we think. Point A does not always lead to point B, and not always to point C in diplomacy. With this in mind, we should be skeptical of those who exude extreme confidence over how one particular action will lead to only one potential result.

Perhaps military action against Syria could produce a breakthrough - we need to explore this. Perhaps the administration's multiple officials are stretching the boundaries of their lanes. Perhaps the mere act of facing our adversary, engaging the world, going to Congress, and talking to the public about Syria is conditioning us for a different approach towards Iran at the moment that the Iranians themselves are exploring this question.

So, we should continue to keep in mind these three strategic themes - it's always darkest before the dawn when it comes to diplomacy; presidents must push for results and see what their team can deliver; and Congress can't be counted on, but it can't be ignored either - about the current Washington debate on Syria and how they impact American policy towards Iran in the days ahead.

This piece was delivered as prepared remarks at a panel about "Prospects for a Diplomatic Solution in Iran" organized by the American Security Project.