Shadow Government

Failure in Syria Will Doom an Iran Nuclear Deal

The world's nuclear weapons proliferators watch each other. They look for warnings and opportunities in how their peers are treated. Iran halted its nuclear weapons development after Saddam was toppled for several years. Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi also got cold feet.

Later, Tehran watched the tepid international responses to the 2006 North Korean nuclear test and to a secret Syrian plutonium production reactor (which Israel destroyed as it neared completion in 2007), and apparently decided that the rewards outweighed the risks associated with constructing a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom.

What are the Mullahs watching now? Syria, where the Obama administration's policy is failing.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi reports that the first round of the Geneva 2 peace talks failed even to provide for any humanitarian relief, let alone to make progress toward a political settlement. He lamented that, "We haven't achieved anything." The Assad government then escalated its attacks against civilians by dropping "barrel bombs" packed with explosives and shrapnel on neighborhoods and mosques, continuing a brutal war that has already killed over 130,000 people and displaced millions. Even Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledges that U.S. policy on Syria is failing.

More to the point for Tehran, the effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons has stalled. Last week, the U.S. representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ambassador Robert Mikulak, blasted the Syrian government, noting that only 4 percent of priority one chemicals had been removed, despite a December 31, 2013 deadline for shipping all such materials out of Syria. He went on to accuse Damascus of a "bargaining mentality." Syria's compliance has been belated, incomplete, and grudging. Worse, while the agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons has stalled, it has also effectively halted international efforts to remove Assad.

The obvious lesson for Tehran: Reach an interim agreement that deflates international pressure for action, drag your feet on implementation, and keep your illicit weapons program as the world dithers.

The stakes in Syria have always been high. The civil war is a humanitarian catastrophe. Its outcome will determine whether or not Iran continues to extend its reach to the border of Israel through its Hezbollah proxies. It will affect prospects for peace and stability in Lebanon and perhaps Jordan. And, it will profoundly influence the outcome of nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

So how are the nuclear negotiations going? President Obama sees the odds of success as no better than 50-50. The six-month interim deal has just gone into effect. It is basically a standstill agreement. It might provide the space necessary to attain a more comprehensive deal, or it could simply be a means to further Tehran's strategy to forestall international action as uranium enrichment centrifuges continue to spin.

Four indicators offer clues as to whether the interim agreement is a path toward real progress or simply a dead-end delaying tactic. First, is Tehran willing to address what the IAEA calls the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program? These are activities, procurements, and documents that only make sense as part of a nuclear weapons program. Unless Tehran is willing to satisfy the IAEA's concerns, there can be no confidence that the activities have ended, and with them the nuclear weapons program. Second, is the tone of the negotiations constructive? If the talks descend into diplomatic trench warfare, with every issue hard fought, it will be clear that Iran has not yet made a strategic decision to renounce nuclear weapons, but instead has adopted what Amb. Mikulak called a "bargaining mentality." Third, is a final deal completed within the term of the six-month interim agreement? If Tehran drags out the negotiations as support for sanctions fades, it will become clear that the mullahs have little interest in a real deal. Fourth, have Tehran's illicit procurement efforts ceased? As long as Iran continues to make illegal procurements of nuclear-related materials and equipment, the presumption must be that it will cheat on any deal barring weapons development.

Talks with Iran will resume next week. Recent statements are not hopeful, with Iranian leaders stressing that they have not agreed to dismantle any part of their nuclear program. One point, however, is crystal clear. If the Obama administration cannot compel a weakened Assad government, beset by civil war and subject to international opprobrium for using chemical weapons, to comply with its disarmament obligations, it is unlikely to succeed in dealing with a much stronger Iranian regime. The price of failure in Syria could be a doomed nuclear deal with Iran.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Parsing Steve Walt's 'Top 10 Mistakes' About Afghanistan

Steve Walt will get no argument from me when he lists President Obama's withdraw deadline as one of the top 10 biggest mistakes in the war in Afghanistan. He also lists, rightly, losing public support, failure to exploit early gains at Tora Bora, and a few other items that are mostly on-target.  In his recent essay, Walt correctly points out that U.S. Policy had its flaws, but I take issue with four of his 10 points.

1. The United States didn't go it alone. Walt repeats an old saw that the United States wanted to wage a unilateral war in Afghanistan. In March 2002-just six months after 9/11-there were 17 nations contributing forces to Operation Enduring Freedom.  The coalition has continued to grow. In 2005 30 countries were contributing to International Security Assistance Force.  Today there are more than 40. 

The coalition was smaller at the beginning because few countries have the logistical capabilities to muster and deploy an expeditionary force halfway across the world on short notice. The United States was relatively on its own in the beginning because few others had the capability to contribute. What they could contribute-including Special Forces and counterterrorism units-was small but effective.

2. The Afghan constitution. There is a myth, universally believed, that U.S. diplomats personally drafted the 2004 Afghan constitution and are directly responsible for the historically novel and unprecedentedly centralized form of government that resulted. This has no basis in fact. Walt and many others are apparently unaware that the 2004 constitution is largely a copy-and-paste job from the Afghans' own 1964 constitution. "We" didn't write it, the Afghans did-40 years ago. And the highly centralized system of governance captured in both constitutions is nothing new to Afghanistan: Afghan kings have been claiming the same set of highly centralized powers for 130 years. The catch is that some kings have been smarter than others and simply opted not to exercise all the powers that ostensibly belonged to them. Either way, the claim that the United States created a novel, centralized system of government in Afghanistan is a fantasy.

3. The military's role in the 2009 surge. Walt finds fault that Obama "succumbed to military pressure" to order more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, but then says the surge should have been "far larger and much longer in duration."  But that's precisely what the military was asking for. Gen. Stanley McChrystal didn't ask for 30,000 troops: he asked for 80,000 and no deadline. Obama didn't succumb to military pressure. Rather, he rejected military advice, sent fewer troops than the military (or Walt) thought should be sent, and then imposed an artificial deadline on their campaign. I think Walt is right that the surge was mishandled, but mistaken in trying to blame it on the military.

4.  Pakistan.  Walt argues that U.S. policymakers "never fully appreciated" that the war could not be won without Pakistan's cooperation. On the contrary, everyone knows and has known that Pakistan is key to the equation. The 2006, 2008, and 2009 strategy reviews all bear witness that the United States understood Pakistan's importance.  The problem was not lack of understanding about Pakistan's importance: the problem was, by and large, a naïve belief in Pakistan's desire to cooperate and a miscalculation about how Pakistan perceives its national interests. 

Policymakers in both the Bush and Obama administrations seemed to believe that Pakistan understood the threat from jihadist groups, including the Taliban, and truly wanted to defeat them but just didn't have enough resources. That is almost certainly false. If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can publicly declare that the Haqqani Network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence agency, as Admiral Mullen did in 2011, we can be certain that the problem is will, not capacity. Pakistan, at least the parts of its government that seem to be calling the shots for its Afghan policy, generally seems to be opposed to what the United States is trying to accomplish there.

Walt may have missed the mark in spots, but he is correct in pointing out that mistakes were made.

 

SCOTT OLSON / Getty images News