Containing Syria or Iran: What is Obama doing?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues

Confidence-building have been one of Rouhani’s main agenda and the hub of his moderate discourse aimed at easing the tensions and reaching a compromise over Iran’s nuclear issue. Electing Rouhani himself could be seen the same way. Iranians, feeling the economic sanctions’ repercussions on their daily life, sent a clear message by electing someone critical to Jalili’s dealing with the nuclear issue. Jalili came forth in line among Iranian presidential elections candidates. Upon his confidence-building approach, Rouhani’s rhetoric on his inauguration and first news conference contained so many implicit and overt messages showing his willingness to conduct a new and genuine dialogue with the west within or outside the group of 5+1 framework. By selecting Javad Zarif, a well-known seasoned diplomat, as his government’s FM and giving him the authority over the nuclear issue, Rouhani made no hesitation to show his moderate approach, albeit clinging to ‘Iran’s rights in developing peaceful nuclear power.’ The supreme leader on the other hand, although gave his blessings to Rouhani’s new approach, asserted his skepticism over western intentions in reaching a real compromise.

Rouhani’s election in American eyes, in contrast, was not that clear. While some have seen it as an opportunity to bring the long-lasted confrontation between the two states to an end, it was another time-buying game aimed at easing Iranian tensions with the international community over its nuclear issue and reducing its costs on Iranian economy for others. Obama himself seems to belong to the optimistic point of view, although he was not that optimistic speaking in an interview on ABC. Nevertheless, it seems that Rouhani's new approach arouse Obama's interest in dealing directly with Iran. Sending a letter to the inaugurated president indicates Obama's good will and, as mentioned by Jay Carney, may lead to a meeting between the two leaders in New York. But sayings have much less effects than doings.

While showing his willingness to reach a compromise, Rouhani was faced with a whole-hearted effort to pressure Syria, the only Arab ally of the Islamic Republic. While there was no evident document showing Assad's responsibility on the use of chemicals, the pressure reached its peak and an assault on Syria pushed forward by an American primary report, delivered to Russia and EU, seemed approaching. Although a deal upon a Russian proposal stopped the war drums bits, but left Iran with an obvious fact: US handling of the Syrian chemical crisis flatly contradict with its shown will to reach a broad agreement with Syria's main ally in the Middle East. Disarming Syrian chemical weapons has started without any evidence indicating Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons.

Focusing on Syria which involves almost all regional actors was not a good choice for Obama while a new 'Moderate' president was being inaugurated in Iran. He could have given the investigations conducted by the UN much time to see what to do later. So why did Washington do that. It is hard to answer and it would be so stupid to call it a humanitarian policy aimed at protecting ordinary people, because firstly, the party that used the chemicals was not that clear to act this fast, and secondly there have been lots of other places that witnessed the use of mass killings by chemical weapons, with the US and other western powers turning their blind eyes. Iran itself has had almost 100,000 of its people slaughtered by Iraqi chemicals, with the US staying aside and supporting Iraq for most of the eight-year wartime. While some may suggest that US has had to do that for the sake of regional balance of power, and so victimized a moral standard of its democracy in order to save the benefits of democracy itself, it would not be rational to say the same thing on the US appeasing Iraq on the Kurds mass killings by chemicals. So why now, with the prospect of Iran – US improving their course of mutual dealings, Obama is pressing hard on the Syrian case?

To answer this question, it would be helpful to do a cost – benefit calculation on the Syrian case. There are hand-picked regional actors pushing hard to impose change in Syria, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Jihadist Takfiris. When Rouhani was elected president, the course of events has already reached a deadlock in Syria. But Rouhani's presidency meant that Iran may change the scene by reaching a direct compromise with the US. This would of course give Iran the upper hand in any international resolution of the Syrian case and force Saudis and Turks to follow the US in such a compromise. With this perspective in mind, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their allies tried to use the chemical incident to avoid such a scenario. By focusing on his red line of December 2012 on the use of chemical weapons, they used the power of media to drag Obama into the Syrian catastrophe. Having no clear picture of Syrian future, Israel has preferred a weak Syrian state, and so welcomed the disarmament deal of Geneva.

But what would Obama gain from Syrian chemical crisis: obviously nothing. Knowing that involvement will not serve US interest, he has been dragged into the Syrian swamp upon a big bluff he made on December 2012. But to reach a big deal with Iran means that Washington should stop, temporarily at least, embarrassing Rouhani and his moderate agenda by involving in the Syrian case that place the US at odds with Iran. Targeting Syria by Saudis and their allies was a show of their desire in curbing Iranian regional power and influence. Doesn’t Obama want that too at this point? I don't think so. Bearing in mind its fundamentally different strategic goals in the Arab Spring from those of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Washington should stop turn its blind eyes from the elephant and lock it in the dark room. It should stop betting on the losing horse and giving Iran's regional rivals the opportunity to determine the future of its relations with Iran. Rouhani will be in New York and will deliver a speech in the General Assembly in Tuesday. Will Obama listen to his words of wisdom respectfully and give him the opportunity to end the long-lasted hostility in mutual relations. If he fails to seize this opportunity, no one is to shoulder the blame but Obama himself.

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

*Militarism in Egypt: The Best Way Out:

*Iran's Relations with Saudi Arabia during Rouhani’s Tenure:

*Sectarian Confrontations in Middle East: Why Iran Is Incriminated?:

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم