The debacle that has defined U.S. policy on Syria raises serious questions about what comes next with Iran. No matter how you look at it, the Obama administration’s erratic steps have further undermined U.S. credibility in the region.
Despite the agreement reached between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart in Geneva over the weekend, the obstacles to actually rid Damascus of chemical weapons remain enormous. They include sealing the deal with a U.N. resolution that will punish non-compliance (Russia, still denying the Assad regime actually mounted a chemical weapons attack, is already making clear it won’t allow such a resolution) and physically extricating the stockpiles in the midst of a war (assuming they haven’t all been hidden or transferred by the time the authorities arrive).
Now the question is how President Barack Obama’s backtracking will be read in Tehran. Will the regime there see the Syria outcome and conclude that the United States is not serious about its threats? Or will it buy Obama’s argument that it was indeed the real threat of military action against Syria that enabled a diplomatic deal in the first place?
The president stressed in television interviews over the weekend that the prospect of nuclear weapons from Iran is a much bigger deal for the United States than are Syria’s chemical weapons. In making the case, he sought to reassure Israel but also seemed to unnecessarily drag the Jewish state into the equation, wrongly implying that the Iranian threat against Israel was the principle reason for stopping the country from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses “is much closer to our core interests,” Obama told an ABC news program.
Now our attention turns to the United Nations, where world leaders will gather next week for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. Obama is slated to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rightly made clear that the pressure on Iran must continue.
There are also reports, denied by the White House, that Obama might “accidentally” meet with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who has launched a public relations campaign to convince the world that he is ready to negotiate a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff that has brought sanctions and isolation.
Diplomacy over war is in many, if not most, instances, the preferred path. No one is anxious to see the United States get sucked into another military venture — in Syria or Iran.
But neither do we want to see Israel have to go it alone to prevent a nuclear Iran. Only by keeping the pressure on Iran and making sure the military threat not only remains on the table but is actually credible will a diplomatic opening be worth pursuing.