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How Syria Brought the U.S. and Iran Together

Foreign Policy In Focus

This year’s UN General Assembly may well be remembered as the beginning of the end for Washington’s decades-long standoff with Tehran. And none of it would have been possible if the Obama administration had gone ahead with its plan to attack Syria.

A few weeks ago, with the Obama administration poised to go war in Syria and anti-Iranian neoconservatives cheering from the sidelines, the gulf between Washington and Iran appeared as deep as ever.

Bound by its 2005 mutual defense treaty with Syria, Iran would have been under considerable pressure to respond to any aggression against the Assad regime, its sole regional ally. And given the alleged presence of Iranian military and technical personnel in Syria, a U.S. strike could have very well led to direct Iranian casualties, thus emboldening hardliners in Tehran to escalate Iran’s confrontation with the West and push the moderate President Hassan Rouhani to the sidelines.

But just when everyone thought that Syria would undercut the Rouhani administration’soutreach to the West, a remarkable feat of diplomacy transformed an impending crisis into an historic opportunity to redefine U.S.-Iranian relations.

The Obama administration’s eventual decision to welcome a Russian initiative—offered with the tacit and crucial support of Iran—to forestall a U.S. intervention by transferring Syria’s chemical weapons stocks to the international community represents a major opportunity not only to avoid a pointless new war in Syria, but also to establish a broader political roadmap for Washington and Tehran to resolve multiple regional crises.

All these recent diplomatic gains, however, could prove to be short-lived unless the United States steps up its engagement with the Rouhani administration, recognizes Iran’s potential to be a constructive player in regional affairs, and makes a quantum leap forward in its current diplomatic posturing on Syria as well as on Iran’s nuclear program.

In more concrete terms, this means that the Obama administration should welcome the inclusion of Iran in the long-delayed Geneva II talks over Syria, provide tangible concessionsin exchange for Iran’s agreement to more stringent restrictions on its enrichment program, and pave the way for a long-term “grand bargain” providing the foundations of more comprehensive cooperation in the future.

The first two measures need to be prioritized in the short-to-medium term, since they don’t require the full normalization of bilateral ties—which is, to say the least, an uphill battle. Nonetheless, a grand Iran-U.S. bargain could very well emerge as a long-term, logical outcome of an entente in the more immediate future. Obama’s recent overtures towards Rouhani, including a historic phone conversation between both leaders after 34 years of bilateral estrangement, represents the first move in the right direction.

The Real Prize

There’s a great case to be made that it was luck, not foresight that prevented an escalation of the war in Syria.

The British parliament’s decision to reject Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for a military intervention in Syria proved to be a fatal blow to Obama’s hopes of assembling a coalition of like-minded countries against Assad, forcing the White House to postpone its decision and launch consultations with the Congress in order to shore up domestic support. When it became clear that this bid was likely to fail, Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand (and potentially facetious) suggestion that Washington could roll back its intervention plans if Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons provided a perfect opening for Russia and Iran to step in.

But there were more fundamental operational and strategic questions as well. The Pentagon leadership was clearly not comfortable with the idea of intervening in Syria, with no less than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, repeatedly emphasizing the costs and risks of a Syrian gamble. It was far from clear whether a limited military strike could really change the balance of forces in Syria, deter the further usage of chemical weapons against civilians, or empower the liberal-moderate opposition at the expense of extremists. If anything, a strike could have very well emboldened the regime to resort to more desperate measures, raising risks of further escalation in a conflict that has claimed the lives of 100,000 people and displaced millions of others. And above all, it was very clear that most of the American public was against intervention.

Obama’s eventual decision to test the mettle of diplomacy had a lot to do with Iran. On the surface, the Obama administration, under pressure from hawks and the pro-Israel lobby, tried to couch its Syrian gamble as some form of indirect warning against Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. But in reality, Obama appears to have been rightly worried about the repercussions of escalating the war in Syria on the prospects of forging a rapprochement with Iran, now under a new moderate leadership.

Rouhani should also be credited for his astute diplomatic maneuvers. One of the most striking elements of Rouhani’s foreign policy is his ability to avoid diplomatic landmines, refrain from provocative statements, and transform crisis into opportunity—a stark departure from the previous Ahmadinejad administration. While expressing his opposition to any Western intervention in Syria, Rouhani made the crucial decision of not assigning blame to the opposition and limiting Iran’s response to any prospective intervention to “religious and humanitarian duties of providing food and medicine for Syrians.” By contrast, Rouhani’s Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, repeatedly blamed the opposition for the alleged chemical weapons attacks and threatened to accelerate Russian arms transfers to Syria in retaliation for a Western intervention.

Despite their reputation for blustery rhetoric, multiple organs of the Iranian regime, including the armed forces, also fell short of threatening a direct military counter-intervention—a clear signal that they were willing to take their chances with Rouhani’s overtures to the West. In fact, shortly before Assad agreed to give up his chemical stocks, Irandispatched Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the influential chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s parliament, to meet Assad and find a diplomatic solution ahead of an impending intervention. Boroujerdi’s visit is believed to have been instrumental to Syria’s eventual decision to agree to the Russian proposal.

The Best, Last Chance at Peace

Both Obama and Rouhani acknowledge that the solution to the Syrian civil war is by no means through the barrel of the gun. “I do not believe that military action,” Obama told the UN General Assembly, “can achieve a lasting peace. … My preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”

The Syrian crisis is a proxy war among international actors as well as an internal civil war. So far, diplomatic initiatives have failed to bring about a viable political settlement largely because they’ve failed to appreciate the strategic sensitivities of major stakeholders inside Syria as well as the role of regional actors such as Iran. This is precisely why a growing number of Western countries, including France, have at least conditionally welcomed Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva talks. After all, Iran, along with Russia, has the greatest leverage over the Assad regime, whose survival has been tied to Iranian logistical, financial, and political support.

The Obama administration is gradually arriving at some understanding with Tehran over the political future of Syria. Iran knows very well that the collapse of the Syrian state could fuel a deep sectarian and geopolitical conflict that could engulf Iran in the near future. Yet the emerging U.S.-Iran modus vivendi over Syria is just an opening act to a larger development: the prospect of a rapprochement ending three decades of mutual hostility and estrangement.

While Obama has limited time before entering the “lame duck” years of his tenure, Rouhani has an even shorter timeframe to reconfigure Iran’s relations with the West, especially the United States. Enjoying an unprecedented political honeymoon, Rouhani has been empowered to make decisive changes in the Iranian government, including especially his spectacular cabinet reshuffles, which saw not only the appointment of technocratic and moderate figures to top organs of the government, but also the transfer of authority over nuclear negotiations from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, which is under the control of the American-educated Mohammad Javad Zarif.

As an ultimate insider and a consensus-minded leader, Rouhani enjoys the full support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, at least for now, who has blessed Rouhani’s “heroic flexibility” in pursuing direct talks with Washington—primarily to end crippling sanctions, but more broadly to herald a new chapter in Iran’s foreign relations.

Rouhani’s presidency thus represents the United States’ best opportunity to break the ice in bilateral relations and prevent a major conflict in the Middle East. After all, a vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum support engagement with Iran, and Rouhani was elected on a platform of reaching out to the West, particularly the United States.

But this ultimately requires the Obama administration’s full commitment to engaging the moderates in Iran, reversing its crippling sanctions in exchange for enrichment concessions, and above all acknowledging Iran’s indispensability to regional stability. This could be Washington’s last and best chance at peace in the Middle East.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst based in Manila. He can be reached at Jrheydarian@gmail.com.

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