Yes, Iran is watching Obama’s handling of Syria closely. Why that’s great news.

September 19, 2013

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting in Kermanshah. (Office of the Supreme Leader, via AP)

President Obama's decision not to strike Syria, and to instead pursue Russia's plan to remove Syria's chemical weapons, has come in for a lot of criticism from some Iran-watchers. They warn that Obama has ignored his own "red line," hurt his credibility as a presidential threat-maker and, in the process, signaled to Iran that it can safely ignore his warnings against developing a nuclear weapon. Those critics, as Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner points out, include former secretaries of defense Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta.

There's a strong case to be made, though, that Obama's pragmatic handling of Syria has sent exactly the right signals to Iran, particularly at this very sensitive moment.

Obama has been consistently clear, even if some members of his administration were not, that his big overriding goal is for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons. First he was going to do that with strikes, meant to coerce Assad. Then, in response to the Russian proposal, Obama signaled he would back off the strikes if Assad gave up his chemical weapons, which is exactly what Obama has always said he wants. He's been consistent as well as flexible, which gave Assad big incentives to cooperate when he might have otherwise dug in his heels.

There are some awfully significant -- and promising -- parallels here with the U.S. standoff with Iran. Obama has been clear that he wants Iran to give up its rogue uranium-enrichment program and submit to the kind of rigorous inspections that would guarantee that its nuclear program is peaceful. He's also been clear that the United States is using severe economic sanctions to coerce Tehran to cooperate and that it would use military force if necessary. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) message to Iran has been: If you abandon your enrichment program, we'll make it worth your while by easing off.

Here's where the parallel with Syria is really important: Iranian leaders distrust the United States deeply and fear that Obama would betray them by not holding up his end of the bargain. That's been a major hurdle to any U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But seeing Assad's deal with Obama work out (so far) sends the message to Iran that it can trust the United States. It also sends the message that making concessions to the United States can pay off. Iran's supreme leader has been talking a lot lately about flexibility and diplomacy toward the West. So it's an ideal moment for Obama to be demonstrating flexibility and diplomacy toward the Middle East.

But what about the damage to American credibility, you ask? Put aside for a moment that, even if foreign policy practitioners are big believers in the importance of credibility, political scientists tend to dismiss it as a lot of hooey. So it's, shall we say, disputed.

Let's say, for purposes of discussion, that credibility is really important. That's actually good news for the U.S.-Iran standoff precisely because Tehran has long doubted that Obama would really back off sanctions and military force if it gave up its uranium-enrichment program; Iranian leaders likely want nuclear breakout capability precisely because they suspect that the United States is secretly bent on the Islamic Republic's destruction. Obama's decision to back off Syria strikes, and I'm bolding this part because it's important, boosts the credibility of his stated position that he isn't seeking Iran's destruction and that he will seek detente with Iran if it first meets his long-held demands on uranium enrichment. That's exactly the message Tehran needs to hear right now.

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Max Fisher · September 19, 2013