The policy debate about how to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons was never about just Syria. It was also a dry run for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But now that a military strike has been averted and a diplomatic deal struck, two very different lessons have been imputed from the experience.
A successful US policy on Iran will have to thread the needle between two camps – those who believe the US must do more to convince Iran it is wiling to compromise and those pushing for unrelenting pressure on Iran, even the threat of military strikes.
Fundamentally, the debate about Syria came down to credibility. President Obama drew a red line at the use of chemical weapons – backed by the implicit threat of a US military response – and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad crossed it. To do nothing would have suggested that US declarations are meaningless. But a unilateral military response risked miring US military in another endless conflict for which Americans clearly had no appetite.
The US-Russian deal – which would facilitate the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal – clearly heeded popular desires to stay out of Syria. It also avoided a partisan showdown in Congress over authorization for the use of force, a spectacle that would have weakened the perception of US resolve abroad. But there is a lingering disagreement about whether the deal reinforces – or undermines – US credibility and what the implications are for Iran.
Three successive administrations, from both parties, have made it US policy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. More specifically, Mr. Obama has repeatedly pledged that he would “use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”
That promise will be put to the test in the next year. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has indicated a willingness to seriously engage the United States, telling the United Nations General Assembly this week that Iran “is prepared to engage immediately in…talks.” For some, this new attitude emanating from Tehran, combined with the diplomatic resolution of the Syrian crisis, has opened up the door to a deal with Iran.
According to this view, by allowing Syria’s Assad to give up his chemical weapons, rather than attacking him, the US has not only asserted its determination to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction but also established itself as a credible diplomatic partner. Iran, which might have previously doubted the sincerity of US overtures, now has a clear signal that the US is willing and able to strike deals. Some have argued that policymakers should relax US sanctions against Tehran to further indicate goodwill.
But at the same time as Iran appears to be warming to diplomacy and winding down parts of its nuclear program, it has been accelerating other parts. An August 2013 International Atomic Energy Agency report indicates that Iran is approaching an undetectable nuclear weapons capability – the ability to manufacture fissile material for a nuclear device in less time than will be required to detect and respond to such action. According to some estimates, Iran will gain this capability by mid-2014.
Those that focus on this ticking clock worry that the Syrian deal has allowed Assad to evade punishment for his transgressions and inspired Tehran to do the same. Thus, Iran’s newly amicable rhetoric seems to them merely a continuation of its familiar stalling tactics. And these tactics have yielded, as yet, no concrete actions. Mr. Rouhani, for example, reportedly deemed it “too complicated” to meet with Obama at the UN this week. And in 2003, when Iran agreed to suspend its program, it actually continued the work covertly.
The only way to avoid being duped again, some argue, is to exert even more pressure on Iran, until it has no choice but to negotiate in good faith.
An effective strategy will have to find the common ground between these two camps – those who believe releasing pressure on Iran is the fastest route to a diplomatic deal and those who believe greater pressure on Iran is the answer.
Tehran’s recent charm offensive might be the last chance for a diplomatic, peaceful resolution to its nuclear ambitions. The US would be irresponsible not to test Iran’s sincerity. But it must remain cognizant of the fast-closing window for diplomacy; Iran cannot be allowed to prevaricate until it presents the world with a nuclear fait accompli.
Thus, to signal their willingness to strike a deal and to expedite the diplomatic process, US policymakers should outline the parameters of an acceptable agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Rather than pursuing incremental agreements and confidence building measures, the US must present Iran with a plan that addresses all the major questions at issue, upholds the conditions required by the UN Security Council resolutions on Iran, including the suspension of uranium enrichment and greater access for international inspectors, and protects US national security. They should also establish a deadline for Iran to respond.
To incentivize a timely, positive response, the US should continue to exert maximum pressure on Iran through continuing economic sanctions and by keeping the threat of force as an option on the table. Indeed, a unanimous lesson from Syria is that the credible and immediate specter of military action can lend a sudden urgency to diplomacy.
But to best signal to Iran such American resoluteness – both in seeking peace and preparing for the worst – the president and Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, should unite behind a policy that lays out an acceptable deal while reaffirming their commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran, by all means necessary. Bipartisanship, and this is the real lesson from the Syria debate, is the ultimate form of credibility.