Obama Is Threading the Needle on Syria and Iran

Image by Zereshk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While the world's attention has rightly been focused on Syria for the past week, it is Iran that may well move to center stage in the coming days. President Obama has been engaging for the past few months with the new moderate Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and that that engagement is bearing fruit.

The two presidents have exchanged letters since Rouhani took office a few months ago. In just the past few days, both men have commented positively on the exchange and, more broadly, on the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough over Iran's nuclear program.

Rouhani called Obama's letter "positive and constructive," and spoke of "subtle and tiny steps for a very important future." He also promised that Iran "will never develop nuclear weapons," and stated that he possesses "full authority to make a nuclear deal with the West." The American president characterized his counterpart in Tehran as "somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven't seen in the past. And so we should test it."

Under Rouhani, Iran has taken a series of steps, both rhetorical and concrete, that demonstrate a real willingness to engage with the U.S. and the West. Most directly, Rouhani's op-ed piece in The Washington Post, published just ahead of his visit to the U.N. in a few days, declared: "We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart."

Perhaps most importantly in terms of substance, no longer will the hard-line Supreme National Security Council be in charge of Iran's nuclear negotiating team. Instead, the nuclear negotiations are now under the purview of the Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, another well-known moderate connected to the 2003 offer by Iran of a "Grand Bargain" to resolve all outstanding issues between the countries, an offer ignored and dismissed by the George W. Bush White House.

Finally, according to Der Spiegel, intelligence sources are saying Iran is willing -- in return for a relaxation of economic sanctions -- to decommission their nuclear facility at Fordo, one that is the "most modern" facility in Tehran's nuclear program and one that is "believed to be virtually indestructible" because it is so far below the ground. The report says that Iran will allow U.N. inspectors to oversee the decommissioning process.

All of these moves could not be undertaken without the blessing of the man who wields ultimate power in Iran, the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This week, Khamenei explicitly endorsed the shift in diplomacy being carried out by President Rouhani.

One important thing to remember is the effect that economic sanctions have had in bringing Iran around to this new, more moderate position, a position that reflects Iran's economic interest in getting the sanctions removed. As a gesture of good will and, of course, a taste of what Iran can expect if more progress is made, President Obama has already relaxed some sanctions on more than one occasion since Rouhani took office.

The topic I want to explore further is the connection between the U.S.-Iranian relationship and what's been going on regarding Syria.

Unsurprisingly, we've heard all kinds of criticism, mostly but not exclusively from the right, about President Obama's agreement with Russia on Syria's chemical weapons. Warmongers disappointed that we aren't bombing Syria have complained that not doing so makes Obama look weak, a weakness that will come back to haunt us in our dealings with Iran. We have John McCain declaring about the agreement: "I think it's a loser because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven't had since the 1970s." These hawks also express grave concerns about our loss of credibility.

However, Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, argued recently that there is far too much focus on the importance of credibility, and characterized this focus as a belief in what he called "the credibility fairy." He rejected the notion that taking any position but the hardest of hard lines automatically undermines a country's ability to achieve success in the international arena. On Syria and Iran, here's Drezner:

"Rather than accommodation on Syria signaling a weakening of resolve to Iran, it might have signaled something very different -- a willingness of the United States to accept the negotiations track. As Arena's analysis suggests, such deals carry policy tradeoffs. But it seems like the willingness to negotiate on Syria has, on the margins, bolstered rather than weakened Iran's willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal."

Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama's deputy national security advisers, likewise added: "The common thread is that you don't achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure. [...] In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years."

President Obama also pushed back against his critics on Syria and Iran in an interview with George Stephanopoulos:

"[Iran] shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck -- to think we won't strike Iran. On the other hand, what... they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically. [...] I think they recognize, in part, because of... the extraordinary sanctions that we placed on them, that the world community is united when it comes to wanting to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. [...] My view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact... you can strike a deal.

A couple of weeks ago, the president found himself in a trap largely of his own making after having drawn a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He could either decide to take military action to punish the Assad regime, or decide not to take military action, allowing Assad to go unpunished. There were other actions Obama could have taken short of an attack, of course, but any such steps would have likely been seen across the board as less than an adequate response to the violation of a "red line."

The agreement the U.S. ultimately struck with Russia to remove Syria's chemical weapons, if carried out, means that Obama didn't have to make that decision. He traded the threat of force for a tangible result -- removing the capability of Syria, no matter who wields power there down the road, to use chemical weapons ever again. That result would have been a best case outcome of any missile strike, as such a strike would have been limited in scope. The threat of force--which remains on the table if Syria doesn't live up to the agreement -- achieved its goal without the U.S. having to fire a single missile. Unfortunately, Syria's civil war rages on, and Assad remains in power, but U.S. missile strikes, whatever damage they would have done, would not have changed that.

Having shown his willingness to use force but also his willingness to negotiate and take a reasonable yes for an answer, Obama found a successful way out of the Syria trap. By doing so, he preserved the possibility of achieving a far greater prize, some kind of comprehensive deal with Iran a la the 2003 Grand Bargain. Had President Obama ordered missile strikes on Syria, Iran's ally, the moderate forces in Tehran might well have been undercut to the point that they couldn't have made the concessions necessary to achieve that kind of deal. Had Obama simply walked away from striking Syria without any tangible gain, he may have emboldened hard-liners in Iran to demand that their government simply hang tough and wait for the U.S. to give in on Iran's nuclear weapons program too -- something that Obama would not do of course.

Dennis Ross, primary adviser on Iran to the president through most of his first term, recently argued that Syria giving up its chemical weapons will improve the prospects of achieving a broader U.S.-Iran rapprochement, noting that "these two situations are deeply intertwined." Whether or not Ross is right, what is clear is that the Syria crisis could very easily have knocked off track the burgeoning but fragile movement toward that rapprochement. Once the crisis over Syria began, there was a very narrow path that had to squeeze through Damascus. At least for now, it appears Barack Obama has navigated his way onto that path. Let's hope that a comprehensive agreement with Iran stands at the end of the road.