Shadow Government

Syria's Lessons for the Iran Nuclear Talks

Syria's Bashar al-Assad may have thrown a wrench into Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's plans for nuclear negotiations with the West -- if the United States learns the right lessons from the Syria experience.

It is by now conventional wisdom that Iran emerged as a clear winner in the U.S.-Russia diplomacy on Syria. To be sure, there was plenty for Tehran to like about this particular foreign-policy misadventure: the United States' hesitancy to enforce a red line or to use force, the West's willingness to focus narrowly on Assad's chemical weapons and ignore the broader threats posed by Assad and his allies, the public split between the United States and key regional allies like the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey, and the re-emergence of Russia, Iran's ally, as a player in the region.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the outcome is entirely benign for Iran.

Rouhani's overarching objective in the nuclear talks, likely to resume soon, appears to be securing relief from economic sanctions at the minimum cost to Iran's nuclear options. To that end, media reports indicate that Rouhani will propose that Iran retain most of its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and be given relief from the two primary threats facing the regime -- economic sanctions and military threats. In exchange, Iran will reportedly offer a range of transparency and verification measures, such as implementing the "Additional Protocol" to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thereby ostensibly expanding International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors' access to Iranian nuclear sites.

The chemical weapons deal with Syria, however, complicates this approach. Barack Obama's administration and many in Congress have asserted that the deal was made possible only due to the credible threat of force. This explanation is facile; the credibility of the president's threat evaporated when it became clear that Congress would not authorize the use of force and the administration would not act absent that approval. In reality, having maneuvered himself into a corner through a deficient and undisciplined policy process, the president had little choice but to accept the Russian gambit.

Ironically, this collapse of credibility on Syria may prompt an effort to reinforce U.S. credibility on Iran. Because the alternative explanations of its behavior are so unpalatable, the Obama administration is now committed to the principle that credible threats of force facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs. And the administration's partners, from Congress to overseas allies, may well be eager to cooperate in any effort to bolster the credibility of U.S. military warnings to Iran, having themselves proven reluctant to endorse force against Syria.

Furthermore, the success of the Syria agreement hinges upon Assad's cooperation with weapons inspectors, just as any nuclear deal with Iran will depend on Tehran's facilitation of IAEA inspections.

But Assad -- who until just days ago denied having a chemical weapons program, just as Iran denies having a nuclear weapons program -- is far more likely to obstruct the inspectors, and Moscow is likely to abet him. Assad has consistently failed to follow through with his promises or live up to international agreements, and he will likely try to retain some of his chemical weapons as insurance against a still-raging uprising.

Thus, the inspections regime for Syria, by virtue of its timing and Iran's close alliance with Assad, will inevitably be seen as a test case in the value of transparency measures in addressing threats of weapons of mass destruction and building diplomatic confidence. Syrian misbehavior will not just sour Washington and its allies on the Syria deal, but should also make the Obama administration wary of the value of monitoring and verification as substitutes for farther-reaching limits on Iranian nuclear work. Rouhani would surely rather look elsewhere for an apotheosis of compliance.

Finally, Syria is a case study in a tactical success that is nevertheless a strategic setback. Even if Assad gives up his chemical weapons against all expectations, his prospects for not only surviving the uprising but strengthening his grip on power -- despite Obama and many other world leaders insisting he must go -- have increased.

Similarly, Rouhani's great achievement during his first stint as Iran's nuclear negotiator was to deflect serious consequences in the wake of the exposure of Iran's theretofore-secret enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, at the low cost of their suspension until the threat of U.S. attack had subsided in 2005. Rouhani has once again been called upon to get Iran out of a jam, and can be expected -- like Assad, and like himself a decade ago -- to try to secure victory out of retreat.

For the Obama administration, Syria must serve as a wake-up call as the administration enters a more serious phase of nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The White House has -- quite inadvertently -- partnered with Congress to forge a policy combining heavy pressure and repeated outreach that may now have Iran considering changing course. But until Tehran does so fully and sustainably, the United States must not just continue its diplomacy but also maintain and reinforce the pressure that has gotten it this far, lest its tactical gains give way to strategic failure.

Photo: ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama's Handling of the Mideast Means America's Already Losing a Proxy War with China

Dan Blumenthal's excellent Shadow piece this week on Chinese interests and capabilities is thoughtful and informative, but it is also unsettling when understood in the context of the strategic vacuum that is the Obama administration's foreign policy. One doesn't have to be a China-phobe to appreciate that the last four years have emboldened the Chinese to assert themselves while they can.

For during those four years, the U.S. president has made clear that he believes the United States' proper role in the world is to be a convener or a conferee, and in extreme cases one of a coalition led by the U.N. to act when that international organization deems it appropriate. The only deviations from this approach have been the successful effort to take out Osama bin Laden, the launching of numerous drone attacks, and very briefly the threat of "unbelievably small" military strikes on Syria in response to the regime's use of chemical weapons the second time it used them. Otherwise, the administration's theory and practice have been very much multilateral, to act as a follower, to be one of several involved in an action when others take the lead. In short, the United States doesn't articulate and pursue its global and regional interests boldly and consistently, and there is a price for that.

The Chinese are watching, and they are not ignorant of what this all means for their interests and goals. So what is it that they are seeing in the world that encourages them? America's tragic Middle East policy. When the world's only superpower lets the very strategically important Middle East be overwhelmed by its enemies and ignores the needs of its allies, states that want changes in the balance of power in their own neighborhood are sure to take note. China is one of those change agents; the country doesn't like U.S. hegemony in East Asia and seeks to end it, and China can only be encouraged to believe that the United States isn't interested in asserting itself for the sake of its interests in East Asia. If America isn't serious and determined about the Middle East, why should it be about East Asia?

What exactly has everyone, China included, been witnessing? Among other things:

  • 1) The rise and fall and the sort of rise again of democratic forces in Egypt with no attendant U.S. leadership on the side of the good guys. In fact, the United States put its faith in Islamist radicals bent on creating another theocratic Islamist state. Only the Egyptian military acted to save the world from that, and no one knows how it all will end.
  • 2) Iran's methodical attempts to obtain nuclear weapons while the administration continues to believe that aggressive Islamist dictators bent on controlling the Middle East can be talked out of their own vital interests.
  • 3) Syria's massacre of over 100,000 people with chemical and conventional weapons -- and with support from Iran and Hezbollah -- in an attempt to save its murderous regime. U.S. dithering and tacking has finally led to an outsourcing of its Syria policy to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

In sum, over the last four years the president has indicated that he is not interested in foreign policy unless he is forced to be and that he has no strategy for pursing U.S. interests even in the most crucial part of the world for America -- the Middle East.

Why, then, should China expect him to seriously reconsider his muddled and inadequate strategy for dealing with China's desire for hegemony in East Asia? As Blumenthal says, his approach to China is: "a policy of engaging, balancing, and hedging against China, with some vague notion that doing so will nudge it into becoming a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system. But is U.S. military planning supposed to force it to become this kind of world actor? That sounds far-fetched." Indeed. No self-respecting power -- and China sure is that -- is worried about a United States that won't defend its interests and its allies.

So it should be no surprise for us to read that China is uninterested in talks to settle its dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have been mounting for months, and there has been no sign that they will abate. There also has been no sign that the Obama administration really cares. So while we stand by and watch the formation of an inchoate unholy alliance between Iran and Russia determined to run the Middle East, we appear poised to countenance a war -- hot or cold -- in East Asia between China on one side and Japan on the other with every other state in the region caught in the middle.

All this could have been mitigated if not avoided if the president had been strategically leading his country these last four years instead of treating foreign policy as a nuisance and a photo op. Change agents, balance disturbers, and aggressors take their cues from other players in the international system. The United States has been cueing them; they have been responding logically.