How Obama Accidentally Deterred Iran
The diplomatic charm offensive launched by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, leading up to his telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, is due in no small measure to Tehran's pressing need to have international sanctions lifted so as to salvage the country's crumbling economy and placate social discontent. Important as they undoubtedly are, however, economic considerations alone do not explain Iran's diplomatic turnaround. His dithering notwithstanding, President Obama's stance on the Syrian conflict deserves a share of credit for such an about-face.
True, conventional wisdom presents a radically different narrative in this regard. It has been repeatedly stated that backing away from punitive action against Bashar al-Assad would embolden Iran's mullahs and make them think that they can disregard U.S. warnings at no cost as they pursue a bomb.
And yet, the opposite is likely to have been the case. Iran's leadership has seen that in order to avert U.S. air strikes, Assad had to grudgingly accept giving up his chemical arsenal. The mullahs do not wish to find themselves in a similar predicament, and have thus shown a more tractable attitude in the enduring standoff over their nuclear program.
Furthermore, the fact that the agreement on Syria was negotiated directly by the United States and Russia, with Assad being kept on the sidelines, is likely to have put Tehran's mullahs in a cold sweat. They cannot but realize that if the showdown on their nuclear program reaches high Noon, they too may be at the mercy of Vladimir Putin. The danger for Iran is all the more real as Russia has a strategic interest in preventing nuclear proliferation in the region.
For all these reasons, Tehran's mullahs may have deemed it preferable to seek a modus vivendi with the U.S. rather than being cornered by an arrangement between world powers made at their expense.
Last but not least, Iran's leadership would have been delighted to see the U.S. trapped in the Syrian muddle. A U.S. military engagement in Syria, even without troops on the ground, would have made it more difficult for President Obama to turn his attention to Iran's nuclear installations at a later stage.
Indeed, the images of collateral damages and the unintended consequences of U.S. military action in Syria would have reignited war fatigue in the U.S. And with war-bashing on the rise, the U.S. administration would have been obliged to give a higher priority to extricating itself from Syria than to tackling Iran's nuclear designs.
Now there's no luck for the mullahs. The likelihood of a U.S. military involvement in Syria has faded away. As a matter of fact, it is Iran that could eventually end up in the unenviable position of fighting on two fronts, namely at home against a U.S. attack and in the Syrian battlefield against hostile, Sunni jihadists eager to inflict damage to the Shiites in power in Tehran. The situation is all the more worrisome for Iran as the Sunni jihadists have been tightening their grip on the Syrian insurgency.
Meanwhile, Iran is investing resources and efforts in an effort to protect Assad's regime, its only ally in the region. No wonder a U.S. officer has referred to Syria as being "Iran's Vietnam."
Thus, by staying away from the Syrian theater of operations while Shiite Iran frets about the mounting influence of Sunni jihadists in its neighborhood, this administration has added pressure on Iran's leadership to try to reach a diplomatic settlement of the standoff over its nuclear plans. Hence Rouhani's conciliatory rhetoric.
This does not mean that Iran's new posturing should be taken at face value: the mullahs and Rouhani himself have long practiced the art of deception and concealment. Words will have to be followed by deeds -- quickly and clearly. Nor does it mean that President Obama's Syria policy has not been fraught with prevarications and flaws. The point is, however, that instead of boosting Iran's self-confidence, the U.S. stance on Syria has prodded Iran's leadership into a more accommodating posture ahead of further nuclear talks.
The impact of President Obama's Syria policy on Tehran's frame of mind shows that there are cases in which a global power stands to benefit from holding its fire, eventually assuming the role of balancer, rather than being swiftly drawn by events or promises into the forefront of a regional battlefield.
This experience may prove to be of particular relevance for dealing with forthcoming crises in the geopolitically intricate South China Sea.