Syria Has Become Iran’s Vietnam – Let’s Help It Escape

by Mark Fitzpatrick

via IPS News

As if the Iran nuclear issue was not already difficult enough, it became even more complicated when Bashar al-Assad unleashed his chemical weapons across Damascus suburbs last month. Suddenly, the Syria issue is overshadowing all other factors concerning Iran.

The Obama administration is increasingly justifying its decision to respond militarily to Assad’s chemical weapons use in terms of the likely impact on Iran. Certainly, punishing Assad for crossing Obama’s red line on chemical weapons will make it less likely that Iran will cross Obama’s red line on production of nuclear weapons.

U.S. deterrence against weapons of mass destruction will be strengthened worldwide. North Korea, for example, which has even more chemical weapons than Syria, will be on notice not to even think about using them in any provocation against South Korea or in any conflict that might erupt as a result of a provocation.

It’s not so much Obama’s personal credibility as the United States’ strategic credibility that is at stake. Letting Assad go unpunished could be the straw that breaks Netanyahu’s faith in the U.S. and leads to a premature and counterproductive Israeli attack on Iran that then brings the U.S. into an unwanted war.

On the other hand, U.S.-led airstrikes against Syria could set back prospects for peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. A real solution to the problem is probably impossible, given the depth of differences between the protagonists: Iran wants a nuclear weapons capability and its adversaries don’t want Iran to have it.

Short-term confidence-building measures may be possible now that Hassan Rouhani is in the presidency but even such interim steps will require Iran to accept limits, such as shutting down operations at the Fordow enrichment plant, that so far have been out of the question in Tehran. Rouhani would be hard-pressed in the best of circumstances to persuade hardliners to accept such compromises. If their Syrian comrades-in-arms are attacked by the U.S., the hardliners will be smarting for revenge, not reconciliation.

The hardliners’ mood will be especially dark if Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ‘advisors’ suffer losses in the bombing. Given the extensive military support that Iran has been providing Assad, some Qods forces are likely to get caught in the crosshairs. This could trigger an asymmetric response.

Already there is a report that the IRGC has instructed militia proxies in Iraq to attack U.S. interests there in reprisal for any U.S. strikes on Syria. Iran won’t want to get dragged into a war with the U.S. because of Syria, but unintended escalation could ensue anyway.

As much as Rouhani will oppose action that could lead to conflict with the U.S., he does not control the IRGC. At the very least, they will redouble their supply of armaments to Assad’s forces, using Iraqi airspace and highways as transit routes.

Gaming out the potential impact on the Iranian nuclear programme is one reason to limit U.S. airstrikes, which should in any case be proportionate to Assad’s crime. Rouhani likely will have heard from former U.S. diplomat Jeff Feltman, now U.N. Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, who visited Tehran last week, that the limited U.S. strikes are not directed against Iran’s interests.

That message should be repeated and honoured. The Iran angle is not a justifiable reason for refraining from punishing Assad, but it is among the reasons for avoiding mission creep.

Meanwhile, it is Iran rather than the U.S. that stands to lose most from the Syrian conflict. Tehran’s backing of Assad’s brutality casts it in a villain role on the Arab street throughout the Sunni world. Iran’s pretentions that its own 1979 Islamic revolution was a precursor to the Arab Spring have been shown to be manifestly hypocritical.

And now Assad’s chemical weapons slaughter of women and children has exacerbated divisions in Iran itself, with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani accusing the Syrian government. The Iranian people know that the armaments and financial props that Iran provides Assad soak up revenues that are more precious with each new sanctions measure Iran faces. In many ways, Syria has become Iran’s Vietnam: a quagmire from which it has no apparent escape.

Iran’s Syria predicament gives the United States newfound leverage. The best option for Iran is to lend its weight to a negotiated settlement on Syria. Seeing itself as the major power in the region, Iran has always wanted to be part of any Syria peace talks. Now, more than ever, it desperately wants to join Geneva-II as a way out of its predicament.

Whether or not Obama can bring the fractious Syrian opposition into peace talks, he does have the power to say yes or no to Iranian participation. To date, the arguments for not inviting Iran have won out: it has been part of the problem. But the Iranians can also be part of the solution, not least because of their leverage over Assad.

Iran’s desire to be at Geneva-II is why U.S. air strikes against Syria need not set back nuclear negotiations for very long. Obama should play the Syria card to get Iran to engage meaningfully on the issues of most importance for each.

— Mark Fitzpatrick is director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He is the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding worst-case outcomes (London: IISS, 2008) and editor, inter alia, of Iran’s Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities (London: IISS, 2001). An archive of his recent writings can be accessed here.

– Photo: Women walk past destoryed shops in Al Qusayr, Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS. 

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  1. “Iran wants a nuclear weapons capability”..??!! Please, I thought this was one site we didn’t have to lesson to hawkish lies and baseless propaganda. The little not so subtle switching of “energy” and “weapon”, used ever so inter-changeably until it becomes the subconscious part of everyones mind and hence by default, a new “truth”…a lie is a lie, no matter how many times you repeat it….

  2. You are right that U.S. strategic credibility is at issue, but your solution would shred it. Whether you like it or not, Iran and Syria have been stabilizing factors in the Middle East, while the U.S.-NATO, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the principal forces destabilizing the region- and all you have to do is look at the record and the chaos and devastation they’ve left in their wake to confirm it If our nation is to recapture its credibility, it must respect international law and its institutions, and that means ceasing the waging of unprovoked aggressive war against sovereign nations, or using fabricated intelligence to create faux “casus belli”. The ‘strategic solution’ you are proposing is predicated on the destruction of borders and sovereign states, the seizure of real estate, energy resources and transit routes, and a geopolitical war.

    As for the question of credibility as it relates to the pending action in Congress, I would argue the following. If Congress votes to deny authorization to strike Syria- or the vote is close- and Obama goes ahead with military action, then there would be cause to impeach Obama, Biden and Kerry, and with everything Obama and his Administration have done to cut back on civil liberties, continue this endless war on terror, and thwart the will of the people, it wouldn’t be too soon. I would hope that some in Congress were preparing Articles of Impeachment right now so that they would be prepared for that event. The irony or contradiction, of course. is that the U.S. has been engaging in military action, albeit clandestine or only partially visible, from the very start against Syria (and Iran, and a host of other hotspots) and no one seems to have made it clear that those actions have never been specifically authorized by Congress.

    Congress should also know that if it votes to authorize a military strike against Syria, it will not only be destroying its own credibility to represent the American people, it will be endorsing the commission of an overt war crime under the standard set by the Nuremberg Tribunals, and the U.N. Charter- and will thereby be contributing to the destruction of U.S. credibility and prestige, and the isolation of the country from the community of nations.

    Even if the U.S.-Saudi Arabia-Israel are able to buy off some European countries to help the U.S. cobble together a coalition, it would damage and possibly destroy the credibility of those European governments vis a vis their own people.

  3. And the evidence that Assad launched the chemical attack is what? What did he have to gain by using them vs. conventional weapons? Did he not have a great deal to lose in terms of jeopardizing the support of Russia, China and Iran?

  4. Edding, you are clueless!! “Iran and Syria have been stabilizing factors in the Middle East”?! Really? Impeach Obama?? How do you come up with the stuff? I suppose Asad and Khamenei are couple of nice guys minding their own business!

    Globalcitizen, are you sure Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons? Then tell me why they were hiding their nuclear activities for over 8 years until it was exposed? Do you think the global citizens will be safer with nuclear armed Iran?

    It’s so sad to see how naive some people can be.

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