Rouhani Hangs Back on Syria
Reading Iran’s response to possible Western military intervention in Syria
In a week when a US-led coalition sprinted towards another ill-advised intervention in the Middle East, analysts have offered various perspectives on how Iran’s new government will react and what this means for the region. One of the main criticisms of Obama’s case for intervention is that it is devoid of any clear strategy, either for ending the terrible suffering in Syria, or how the intervention will impact on the myriad problems that beset the Middle East. Many believe that intervention is being driven by much wider concerns than ending chemical attacks in Syria; namely, Obama’s specific desire to reinforce American ‘red lines’ and the purported desire to uphold the taboo against using chemical weapons. This leads Adam Quinn to conclude that “when the choice you’ve left yourself is between a risky, needless intervention and an irretrievable loss of credibility, you better believe you screwed up somewhere.”
If the Obama administration now finds itself vulnerable to accusations that it disregards its own red lines, then its on-going confrontation with Iran is a large part of the reason why. According to the Royal United Services Institute, Iran has crossed no less than seven US or Israeli ‘red lines’ drawn around its nuclear program in the past fifteen years. The setting and breaking of war-triggering red lines has become a permanent feature of the discourse surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. So we are led to believe that Syria must be chastised for crossing Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons (which was actually crossed back in April) because Iran must be convinced that America is serious about setting them.
Leaving aside the question of whether military threats will ever persuade Iran to change nuclear policy, the wider problem is that Iran appears to have elected a new president who is serious about both ending Iran’s international isolation and increasing transparency in Iran’s nuclear program. Even this week, there has been some positive news on this front: Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have set the date for their first meeting since Hassan Rouhani took office. Although eclipsed by news from Syria, the IAEA has also reported that Iran has only marginally increased its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran has also not brought online its newly installed next generation IR-2m centrifuges, which can enrich uranium at much greater speeds. Furthermore, work at Arak, a heavy-water facility that could provide Iran with plutonium, has slowed.
These developments will not go very far towards allying the international communities’ concerns, but in other circumstances they could give additional impetus to the general air of optimism that had followed Rouhani’s election. The concern now is that Rouhani’s team will arrive for negotiations under pressure from hardliners who frame the West’s plans to attack Syria as an act of aggression against one of the few Muslim states still resisting their ambitions to dominate the region. At the same time, Russia and China may demonstrate their own anger at Western military action by further obstructing efforts to isolate Iran.
In this context, many observers have been surprised by Iran’s reasonably mild reaction to the news that its closest regional ally is likely to face a military attack from a (albeit shrinking) coalition led by the “Great Satan.” Various explanations can be offered to explain why, all of which speak to Iran’s perennially underestimated instinct for pragmatism. The first is simple: Iran’s leaders are wary of provoking America while it is in bombing mode. This analysis is backed up by the fact that most Iranian officials have distanced themselves from firebrand calls from some Iranian lawmakers and IRGC figures for some kind of military retaliation, including against Israel.
Another explanation for Tehran’s reticence is that the government is rethinking its Syrian policy. This may be because Iran’s leaders either believe Syria is out of control and no longer worth supporting, or because there is genuine unease at the use of chemical weapons. In other circumstances Iran, which experienced the full horror of chemical warfare during the Iran–Iraq War, would appear a natural ally in any action purporting to uphold the norm against using them. Journalist Jasmin Ramsey posits that Rouhani’s reluctance to blame the rebels for the chemical attacks—the narrative presented by more hardline elements—may even represent a tacit endorsement of US strikes. Farideh Farhi suggests that an American intervention would actually get Iran out of a difficult hole. According to her reading, American military involvement supplants Iran’s position as the primary external actor with responsibility for the tragedy in Syria. Following Rouhani’s surprise victory, Farhi speculates that Iran’s leaders are keen to build on this much-needed boost to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy and that “nothing suits the Islamic Republic better than divesting itself from this issue quietly.”
An opposing view is that Iran is not significantly walking back from its support of Assad. Rouhani might have stopped short of blaming rebels for chemical attacks, but he and his foreign minister have been resolute in condemning a Western intervention. Iran’s leaders probably also recognize that Obama has been boxed in by his own rhetoric and are cognizant that US and UK officials have explicitly disavowed regime change. In a strategic sense, therefore, a limited and perfunctory US attack changes little. If anything, external intervention will rally nationalist sentiment around Assad and allow him to justify future actions as a legitimate response to external aggression. Iran’s leader may well judge that Obama’s panicked decision to throw a few missiles at the problem, combined with the humiliating withdrawal of UK military support, is actually a sign of American weakness. Tehran needs only to look at Libya as an example of the West’s limited ability to gain influence in the aftermath of a bombing campaign.
While Iranian officials probably do not believe a US-led intervention will succeed, it is very likely that they are extremely concerned by the prospect of a major military escalation in Syria. They may see Obama as a reluctant warrior, but Iran has no wish to see mission creep to the point American firepower decisively changes the balance of power in favor of Sunni groups backed by Iran’s regional rivals. Once we accept that a strike is highly likely, however, the reality is that both Rouhani and Obama have a remarkable conflation of interests when it comes to what happens next. Both governments desperately hope that no more chemical attacks will occur—or, worse still, become an open tactic for the Syrian military. Both also do not want to see the upper hand being gained by sectarian jihadists or Al-Qaeda affiliates. Both will want a diplomatic solution and both want the UN to play a greater role in monitoring the conduct of the conflict. Critically, neither wants the situation in Syria to arouse hardline opposition to any negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. Iran will probably still support Assad until it believes the regime is doomed (this will become more problematic if Iran cannot maintain plausible deniability on Syria’s use of chemical weapons).
Managing the fall-out from a US strike will require some careful diplomacy, and there are already signs that American and Iranian officials might be communicating their concerns. Laura Rozen reports that UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top US diplomat, met with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on Monday, and reportedly urged Iran to be calm if there is US-led action on Syria. Another line of communication between Iran and the US is reportedly provided by Oman, in a sign that other regional players are also concerned by the spill over from a US intervention in Syria. Sultan Qaboos, a long-term mediator between Iran and the Americans, was in Tehran recently and it has been suggested that he used his visit to pass messages between the two countries and lay the foundations for further negotiations on the nuclear issue. What is not known is whether Iran will be quietly offered concessions if it agrees to limit its response to statements alone. America could offer to end its opposition to Iran’s participation in Geneva 2 peace talks, but the horse-trading could even extend to the nuclear issue. Zarif, a skillful diplomat known and admired in American diplomatic circles, is the best possible contact for America to have in these circumstances.
How Rouhani emerges from this first great test for his foreign policy will tell us more about how far Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is willing to go to support his president’s attempt to moderate both the substance and rhetoric of Iranian foreign policy. Certainly it appears that there are calmer heads in key positions in Iran than would have been the case three months ago. It is critical, therefore, that the quiet diplomacy that appears to be occurring between Iran and the US continues. It may be too optimistic to suggest that such dialogue offers a platform for wider talks on the issues that divide these two long term adversaries. Nevertheless, both sides do appear to have shared interests and are taking steps to contain the damage to US-Iranian relations and the nuclear negotiations. Whether they succeed will to a large extent depend on how Syria responds to any military intervention. The best case scenario, therefore, is that Syria takes its rap over the knuckles. America will do its best to avoid further entanglement and Iran will issue strong statements of condemnation but probably not retaliate.