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.
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.
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.