While the six month interim deal with Iran on its nuclear capabilities is a huge breakthrough in diplomatic relations, no one knows how serious President Rouhani and the Ayatollah are about reaching a more expansive agreement. Iran has lied in the past and its demand to maintain the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program is worrisome. There is one sure-fire way to induce Iran to give us anything we want, though – all we have to do is give up on Syria.
There are obvious, good reasons why the U.S. has to extents large and small supported Assad’s ouster but given the current state of affairs it may be better to end the civil war and gain a much larger prize.
Three years ago, Iran had made strong gains in its quest for Persian hegemony in the Middle East. Its oil revenues allowed it to spend freely and it presented itself as one of the few Middle Eastern governments not willing to be manipulated by America and Israel, finding support that transcended both nationality and the Sunni-Shia divide. Arab monarchs and autocrats worried about the cementing of a Shia Crescent of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and were terrified of an Iranian nuclear threat, knowing that if it developed nuclear weapons there would be no turning back.
Since then, Iran has experienced a precipitous decline in good fortunes. Sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and support for Assad has destroyed the political capital Iran had amassed. The Sunnis now see Iran as propping up an unpopular dictator out of sectarian loyalty and pure realpolitik.
But Iran views the consequences of losing Assad and, thus, its control of Syria as untenable. The Syrian government operated as a client state of Iran for years and since war began Iran has been a major supplier of weapons and training to Assad’s forces. More critically, Iran has also been providing Syria with discounted oil and free loans to pay for it, all in spite of its own economic woes.
If Assad were to fall Iran would lose not just control of Syria but the ability to easily interact with and control Hezbollah, critically weakening that organization in Lebanon. Essentially a domino effect could create Sunni dominance in these countries, leaving Iran with only the hope of its nuclear program to command respect.
Thus, Syria is Iran’s Vietnam, a massive economic and political drain seen as so strategically important that almost any level of support is justified. If Assad’s survival can be exchanged with Iran for the complete removal of its nuclear program it must be considered for several reasons.
First, the prospect of an Islamic theocracy with nuclear weapons is clearly much worse than the idea of Assad staying in power. The mix of religious values with Iran’s geopolitical ones put Israel and the entire region in immediate peril.
Also, the situation in Syria has become a humanitarian disaster with no end in sight and its conclusion would be a good thing no matter what. Syrian cities lie in ruins and displaced people have flooded across borders in the greatest refugee crisis in a generation. Numbers are expected to exceed 3.5 million by year’s end.
Recently Assad’s forces have been resurgent. But even if the rebels did defeat him there is little reason to think that democratic reforms would take place or indeed that anything at all would turn out better for the Syrian population. The rebels are a mix of Syrian citizens lacking a clear agenda and Islamists, some affiliated with al Qaeda. To make matters worse there is a third group involved in the fighting, foreign jihadists known as ISIS who already control territory within Syria and are terrorizing the local populations with harsh Islamic governance.
Whoever wins between Assad and the rebels, they will still have to deal with ISIS. Indeed, Syria is seen as the frontline for Sunni jihadists across the Arab world and beyond, even attracting fighters from Europe. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al Qaeda, has stated that Syria is becoming a base for that organization, granting striking capabilities against Israel and Europe.
Of course, U.S. reputation might suffer if it went back on its support for the rebels. But it must be clear by now that the U.S. will be damned either way as anti-Americanism is a Pavlovian response in Arab public opinion. And Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia are only working towards their own national interest when they accuse the U.S. of being weak in the Middle East – the U.S. would be wise to realize there are no friends in international affairs, only shared interests.
Iran knows that Assad has only survived this far by the skin of his teeth and Russian diplomacy. While his demise no longer seems imminent it is still not assured that he will gain victory soon or at all. In consideration of this, Iran will be loathe to completely abandon its nuclear trump card – to lose both Syria and its nuclear capability would make Persian hegemony in the Middle East all but a dream.
Conversely, if Iran were given the option to trade its nuclear program for victory in Syria it should consider it a victory. But it would also be a victory for the U.S. and the Middle East region – Saudi Arabia and others would cheer the demise of Iran’s nuclear program. Al Qaeda and its militants could begin to be roll backed. And the Syrian people could try to start rebuilding their lives.