Don’t let Syria distract from Iran opening
September 10th, 2013
10:44 AM ET

Don’t let Syria distract from Iran opening

By Ryan Costello, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ryan Costello is a policy fellow with the National Iranian American Council. The views expressed are his own.

Amid the debate over how to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, few expect any military action to actually ease the brutal civil war (a prospect that could recede if Assad follows through on a recent Russian proposal to hand over its chemical arsenal). Certainly, at best, military strikes would deter al-Assad from the future use of chemical weapons even as the slaughter continues. But while the United States may not be able to orchestrate a decisive shift in the civil war, another vexed issue for U.S. diplomats may be ripe for a breakthrough – Iran’s nuclear program.

The recent election of pragmatic former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani as president raised hopes for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis, optimism that that has been stoked by the recent decision to move the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council, under the direct purview of the Supreme Leader, to the Foreign Ministry where new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will directly oversee it.  With experienced diplomats like Rouhani and Zarif directly in charge of negotiations, the prospects for diplomatic progress are as good as they have been for years – and President Obama has an opportunity to secure a legacy-defining foreign policy victory.

But there are three serious obstacles to doing so. First, action in Syria carries the risk of scuttling or obscuring the potential for progress on the nuclear issue. After all, Syria remains Iran’s closest ally in the region due to longstanding geopolitical ties, and Iran has opposed Western military intervention.  If missiles start to fly, hardliners fearful of regime change and distrustful of reconciliation with the West could have the ammunition they need to prevent Rouhani from mending ties with the United States. The risk of hardliners playing spoiler has been underscored by reports that the Revolutionary Guards' Quds force encouraged Iraqi militias to retaliate for Syrian strikes with attacks against the U.S. embassy and other interests.

More from GPS: Time ripe for Iran reset

But the apparent use of chemical weapons by the al-Assad regime has created fissures within Tehran. Iran has suffered more from chemical warfare than perhaps any country in modern history as a result of Saddam Hussein’s widespread use of chemical agents in the Iran-Iraq war. With this in mind, Iran might be tempted by a seat at negotiations over Syria’s fate, rather than isolate itself diplomatically by supporting a brutal regime. And if the president does approve retaliatory strikes in Syria, the administration will have to go the extra mile to convince Iran that its primary goal in the region is to prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction and that the U.S. intends to pursue diplomacy, not regime change, with Iran. While that won’t completely mitigate the chance that airstrikes empower Iranian hardliners and undermine diplomacy, such steps may be enough to muddy the waters.

The second major obstacle the Obama administration will have to face is its own risk-averse approach to negotiations. To seize the current opportunity, it will have to put more sanctions relief on the table and clarify the endgame with Iran.

After a diplomatic push at the beginning of his first term, which almost resulted in a fuel swap confidence-building deal in 2009 and again in 2010, the Obama administration quickly flipped to amplifying economic pressure to force Iran to capitulate. But sanctions have if anything only encouraged Iran to boost its nuclear capabilities and empowered hardliners opposed to reconciliation with the West.

More from CNN: U.S. can't be bullied by Iran threats

Recent negotiations have focused on small confidence-building steps and the administration has offered little in the way of sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions. In the last P5+1 proposal, Iran was offered sanctions relief on precious metals and petrochemicals. Relief from the most punishing sanctions – on Iran’s oil trade and financial sector – was not on the table.  Those sanctions have been the primary contributor to Iran’s economic crisis, which has resulted in unemployment rising to 20 percent or more even as inflation skyrockets. Spelling out the endgame for Iran by listing what specific actions it will need to take to see meaningful sanctions relief is a prerequisite for a nuclear agreement. Having previously been labeled an appeaser for unilateral confidence building steps including the suspension of enrichment, Rouhani is unlikely to take a step forward until he is sure where a nuclear agreement could lead.

The final obstacle the administration will have to clear is counterproductive Congressional hawks. Just days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the House of Representatives pushed through a dangerous sanctions bill. The Senate is for its part expected to introduce a companion sanctions bill in the weeks ahead. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), meanwhile, has reportedly vowed to introduce a war authorization against Iran in the fall, while a group of senators led by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has floated a bill that would effectively make regime change official U.S. policy.  Any one of those measures could sabotage the current diplomatic opening by signaling to Iran that regime change is the United States’ ultimate goal, or that the Obama administration would be unable to sell a nuclear deal to a hostile Congress.

Still, while these are formidable obstacles, they are not insurmountable. If the president makes a nuclear deal with Iran a top priority, he may be able to navigate the rocky waters ahead and capitalize on Iran’s diplomatic opening. If not, in the years ahead we can ultimately expect to reprise the debate over the merits of military action against another Middle Eastern nation.

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Topics: Iran • Syria

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Robert Lewis

    The President now has my full support for any military strike against Syria.

    September 10, 2013 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • Ella Jones

      And what do you think should be done about Iran?

      September 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • mullahproblems

      It would be nice to make a stand to the thugs in Tehran. Ironically they're very much like the Thugee cults of India, clearly they seek death for themselves and their poor followers.

      September 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  2. sand

    what is usa its a joke 1 iranian icbm aremed with 10 nuclear weapons and usa is gone in 1 second boom and the total american contienent is removed the same goes for russia 1 nuke and russia is dust the people have to big of self confidense they have confidence bias.

    September 10, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • Ella Jones

      What do you mean about Iran?

      September 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  3. Phelix Unger

    Sand, go pound some. I think everyone knew that the two proposals were coming, it was a little less then a year ago that the president said that Iran was at least a year away from putting a delivery system in place. Well the year is pretty much up, so these annoucements were expected. As for the Syria option I do believe that we will see at least a six month to twelve month process, buying Syria time to not face any consequences for their actions. The most dangerous thing I think that can happen to America is that it become isolationists in its actions. Its not good for America and not good for the world.

    September 10, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  4. ✠RZ✠

    Removing chemical weapons from the Assad regime and preventing the acquisition of any of the same thereafter is a very good thing. Now how about everybody else ? Or is it normal to permit at least one chemical attack by a country before the worold shoukd take any serious action?

    September 10, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  5. ✠RZ✠

    If the strategy to bomb Syria is averted, there's always Iran and North Korea,

    September 11, 2013 at 12:45 am | Reply
    • Ella Jones

      The answer to the problem in Iran isn't bombing them, it's finding leadership that is competent.

      September 11, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
      • mullahproblems

        By competent you mean "anyone who is not a cleric" right?

        September 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    While Obama's beat of war drums echo around the globe, there are senior Iranian politicians, who have condemned Assad, despite his denial.
    That the nuclear file has been removed from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry under the supervision of foreign minister Javad Zarif must have been done with the blessing of the supreme leader, who determines the defence and national security policies. Time will tell, where Iran is heading to in its foreign policies.

    September 11, 2013 at 8:08 am | Reply
    • mullahproblems

      They've condemned him? You really think the Mullahs are going to back out now after investing lives and money and weapons in him after 2 and a half years?

      September 11, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  7. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    September 11, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • En Em

      The Shah was the best thing that ever happened to Iran. You will never have a leader like him again and Iran will never be that glorious country ever again. All Iranians prospered during the Shah's reign and women were treated with respect and attained high offices in government. The Shah took Iranians off their camels and put them into cars, but unfortunately he could not change what was in their heads. Do you know what it takes to modernize a country? Do you think it's easy to change a people who do not want to progress and advance?

      Most Iranians think Socialism is chic! They forget that Socialism has failed in every country that has tried it. And Mossadegh was a Socialist. You will recognize Socialism instantly when a country nationalizes its resources in the name of the people. And you get as close to Communism as you can depending on the extent that you implement Socialism. And Democracy is Mob Rule. It's the rule of the Majority. So then, what happens to the Minority? What happens to the Individual? Who is the smallest Minority?
      Every leader in the world has been called all kinds of names. But a leader will always be a Leader.

      September 20, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  8. En Em

    To answer Ella Jones' question: "And what do you think should be done about Iran?"

    It's rather late for that. Let's rerun history..........

    Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability is akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. Jimmy Carter, The Department of State, the British, French and the Russians and of course the CIA, collaborated to oust the Shah of Iran and handed the “keys to the kingdom” on a silver platter to a bunch of barbaric, religious thugs and fanatics.

    Jimmy Carter stood up at a banquet given by the Shah in his honor. He said “I asked Roslyn where she wanted to spend Christmas this year and she said “Why, with the Shah and Shahbanoo, of course”. And then he went on t say, “Iran has made tremendous progress under the Shah’s government and we hope it continues to do so”. They say the camera never lies. That was very true in Jimmy’s case. I took one look at the close-up of his face on TV and I could see he was lying through his teeth and we all had a foreboding about our lives and our future. True enough, the Shah was ousted two months later.

    The "revolutionary atmosphere" that preceded the Shah’s fall more than 30 years ago was created and precipitated by the agencies I’ve named above. The so-called Islamists didn’t have to do a darn thing. It was all done for them by their friends. Some of those friends also happened to be Generals of the US armed forces who in 1979 were in and out of Teheran like it was his own backyard, placating the Shah’s troops and promising god knows what to the Shah’s personal bodyguards to entice them to lay down their arms. The British meanwhile were busy expounding the virtues of socialism to the students at Teheran University until they had been whipped into a righteous frenzy against the Shah’s government. The Soviets were hanging around waiting to see if they were getting Afghanistan in return for their non-involvement in the “revolution”. And the US kept its promise to them.

    Orders from on high in the US government also advised Americans manning the ICBMs on the Iran/Soviet borders to leave everything “as is” and vacate the area within 48 hours. In doing so, these American perpetrators who once were the Shah’s friends, handed over the future of Iran on a platter to a gang of cut-throats, mass murderers and religious fanatics. And now we are seeing America’s chickens coming home to roost. Well, what goes around........comes around. The American Congress was responsible for flatfootedly creating this untenable global situation!

    And to complicate the Iran issue even further, the CIA arranged for Khomeini to succeed the Shah. He was made to believe that he was the greatest thing since the Friday prayers! He was under the impression that he had returned to Iran to stay put until he discovered the fact that he was a temporary plant. That’s when Khomeini dubbed the US as the great Satan (because Satan always lies) and took American civilians as hostages in a counter offensive.

    As far as nuclear weapons go, Israel is armed to the teeth. Perhaps that’s what destabilized the Middle East and sparked a nuclear arms race in the first place. And the long-standing bonds between the US and Israel are based on expediency. We buy loyalty and we rent friends. Otherwise, why would we turn a blind eye to Israel’s nefarious stealing of land that does not belong to it? I am hoping that you will not want to remind me that God gave this land to the “children of Israel”. He did not; the British did and in so doing disenfranchised, almost overnight, those who had been living there in peace over the centuries. And if God gave the Israelis this land, then why did they abandon it and pranced around in Europe instead. This unfortunately reminds me of that quote from the thug Ahmadinejad, “Why are the Palestinians paying for Hitler’s mistakes?”

    We would have to be very naïve to think that crippling Iran’s economy with sanctions is the answer.
    The barbaric Iranian government couldn’t care less about these sanctions which will only end up hurting the everyday man-in-the-streets of Tehran.

    September 12, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Reply

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