Can Obama Pull A Reagan On Iran?


Last night, I wrote that “Syria is the proof of principle for an agreement with Iran”. But that the second phase of dealing with regimes harboring WMDs in the Middle East will require real courage and boldness from the president – Reagan at Reykyavik boldness. Beinart sees the same comparison:

Since Syria is caught in the middle of an American-Iranian (and to a lesser degree, American-Russian) cold war, it’s worth remembering what ended the last Cold War. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to prop up unpopular regimes in Eastern Europe. But to cut Eastern Europe free, Gorbachev had to answer hard-liners who had long argued that the USSR needed a ring of clients to protect it against another attack from the West. That’s why Ronald Reagan’s willingness to embrace Gorbachev and negotiate far-reaching arms-control deals—despite bitter criticism from conservative politicians and pundits—proved so important. As Reagan himself argued, “I might have helped him see that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.” By helping show Gorbachev that he could safely release Eastern Europe, Reagan helped end the Cold War. And when the Cold war ended, so did civil wars across the globe because the U.S. and USSR no longer felt that their own security required arming one side.

Today, President Obama’s real strategic and moral imperative is not killing a few Syrian grunts to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. It is ending the Middle Eastern cold war that fuels Syria’s savage civil war, just as the global Cold war once fueled savage civil wars in Angola, El Salvador, and Vietnam. It’s possible that strengthening Syria’s rebels and sanctioning Iran could further that goal, just as Reagan’s military buildup showed Moscow the cost of its Cold War with the United States, but only if such efforts are coupled with a diplomatic push that offers Iran’s leaders a completely different relationship with the United States, one that offers them security and status absent a nuclear weapon and no longer requires them to cling to Bashar Assad. By striking Syria, Barack Obama is making that harder. By doing so in alliance with groups that oppose any thawing of the U.S.-Iranian cold war absent total Iranian capitulation, he’s making it harder still.

This will not be easy, as Suzanne Maloney explains, but the potential for win-win-win is there:

Rouhani was elected to rescue Iran from its ruinous spat with the United States over its nuclear ambitions. He and those around him are sophisticated enough to appreciate that this objective will be much further out of their reach if all parties get tied up in a U.S.-Syrian military engagement. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Tehran to insulate its assets and personnel in Syria from any military strike against the regime, and it would be even more challenging for Iran’s president to restrain the hard-liners in Iran’s security establishment from responding with force. So it comes as no surprise that, in hopes of advancing his mandate to rehabilitate Iran’s place in the world, Iran’s pragmatic president has thus been trying to modulate Iran’s public posture on Syria.

Russia’s diplomatic option may temporarily salvage Tehran’s investments in Assad and Syria. And perhaps that would disappoint those hoping to use intervention in Syria to set Tehran back on its heels. Still, the presumption that only a robust show of U.S. force in Syria can dissuade Iran from weapons of mass destruction is false. Using diplomacy to defang Assad would boost Iran’s readiness to work with the international community on the nuclear question.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar’s piece on the rise of Iranian pragmatism is on the same page:

In a recent interview with Iran’s state-controlled TV, Rowhani said he has been in touch with leaders of several countries and his foreign minister has spoken with his counterparts from 35 states to prevent a war. He emphasized that Iran would support “any initiative” to avoid a strike against Syria and pointed out that Tehran in principle agrees with the proposal for international control of Assad’s chemical arsenal. Moving to the nuclear issue, he said Iran’s approach for a “win-win solution” will begin during his upcoming trip to New York, where he will meet with foreign ministers of some of the P5+1 countries. He added that if the other side is serious, the “nuclear question will be resolved in a not very long period of time.”

Both the United States and Islamic Republic view the situation in Syria as a means to signal to the other side. The Obama administration claims that its serious handling of Syria will send a message to Iran and its nuclear program. The Rowhani administration, on the other hand, intends to show its diplomatic handling of Syria will pave the way for a diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.

And why cannot both be right? Larison looks at the situation from Iran’s perspective:

 Imagine for a moment that the U.S. were in Iran’s position: a much more powerful government hostile to ours had waged two wars of regime change on our borders, it defined its policy towards our country solely in terms of grossly exaggerated fears of the threat that we ostensibly posed to them, most of the surrounding region was filled with governments aligned against ours, and one of our only remaining allies on the planet was threatened with attack from that same government. Wouldn’t we see this government as deeply hostile to us, perceive it as a major threat to our security, and do what we could to discourage an attack on our country? In such an environment, hard-liners would usually benefit and prevail in internal policy debates. If Iranian hard-liners benefit from an attack on Syria, the effect will be the opposite of the one that many Syria hawks predict, and it will make it that much more difficult to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue.

Which is why a Russian-backed UN process is so preferable to the other options. And why this is but a preliminary to the real event.

(Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rowhani attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran on September 3, 2013. By Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)