Much has been written about the technical points of the P5+1 interim agreement that authorized international sanctions relief in exchange for a slowdown (but not cessation or cancellation) of Iran's nuclear program. Much attention has also been paid to the anatomy of the deal, with an intense focus on secret Oman-based negotiations the Obama administration held with the Iranians as early as eight months ago. However, the details about breakout capacity, inspections regimes, and the dollar amount of actual sanctions relief have distracted from the invisible rider on this accord, which is Western acquiescence to Iran's gradual takeover of Syria.
As analysts Mike Doran and James Glassman have written, the six-month nuclear deal may now be used to retroactively explain President Obama's seeming incoherence in responding to nearly three years of a grave humanitarian catastrophe. At minimum, 110,000 people have been killed and many millions more Syrians internally or externally displaced, all while the Obama administration has recused the United States from getting involved in what the President termed "someone else's civil war," knowing that Russia and Iran had no such compunctions.
This is a policy for which he has been roundly criticized, not least by the majority of his own cabinet through well-timed leaks to American broadsheets. Obama's failure to arm the anti-Assad rebels when they were still moderate and carried expectations of US help; his refusal to publicly disclose intelligence about the Assad regime's dozen or so "small-scale" chemical weapons attacks even when other Western countries were angrily doing so; his improvised establishment, and then neglect, of a "red line" on large-scale chemical attacks - all this makes sense in the context of pursued rapprochement with Iran. "Rather than merely being feckless," Doran and Glassman write, "the administration may actually have a long-term plan, and this initial nuclear deal is only a tactic in a broader strategy. The overall aim is a strategic partnership with Iran because the administration sees that country as the only island of stability in a sea of chaos and violence."
This is the direst assessment that can be made of the White House's intentions at Geneva, and conclusions that derive therefrom are quite cynical. Yet there's some evidence to support Doran and Glassman's thesis.
For one thing, although the administration still clings to vaguely democratic talking points about supporting the Syrian opposition and demanding Assad's removal from power, it has not prevented Iran's inheritance of the regime's security detail, the breathtaking extent of which has never once been publicly articulated or condemned by Obama. True, the US Treasury Department sanctioned a handful of IRGC and Hezbollah figures for their involvement in Syria - not a hard thing to do when both groups had already been heavily sanctioned by the US - but the rhetorical fixation of this administration has always been on the composition of the rebels, specifically its jihadi quotient. When the bulk of the anti-Assad forces in Syria were still either defectors from the regime or civilians who had taken up arms to defend themselves, Hillary Clinton was comparing them to Hamas or saying she didn't know who they were or saying that arming them might benefit al-Qaeda. (We now know she didn't agree with this schizophrenic analysis and supported gun-running to the Free Syrian Army, as did almost every other relevant secretary or intelligence chief in the administration.)
Even the supposed realpolitik of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who, according to The New York Times, "suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would work to America's advantage," was belied by the fact that the CIA leaked intelligence to Hezbollah informing it that al-Qaeda-linked groups were planning terrorist attacks in the Party of God-dominated districts of south Lebanon. For McDonough's let-them-kill-each-other prescription to work, salafi cells in Tripoli must have also been tipped off by Langley about pending Hezbollah operations against them. Somehow I doubt that ever happened.
Since September of this year, there's also been another not-so-hidden administration motive for ceding greater control of Syria to Iran: the US-Russia chemical weapons disarmament plan, which resulted in the first UN Security Council resolution passed on the Syria carnage while also re-legitimizing Assad as a necessary Western partner in overseeing the destruction of the regime's stockpiles of nerve agents. The deadline set for full disarmament is well into next year, at which point Assad will almost certainly still be in power. To remove the stockpiles, either the regime or a third party will need to provide them with safe conduct out of the war-ravaged country on roads that are either in rebel hands or are constantly being interdicted by rebels. The chances of American forces being deployed to Damascus and Aleppo for this undertaking are slim to none. Nor is anyone stupid enough to believe that Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham will refrain from attacking dangerous convoys of toxins because of a piece of paper inked in New York. So built right into the chemical accord was a necessary, if unwritten, guarantee that the regime retain or regain control of major highway systems throughout the country. This clearly is not a job for the inept and depleted Syrian Army to carry out on its own. But, as the CIA and the White House surely know, it doesn't do anything on its own anymore.