With the nuclear deal finally out of the way, President Obama can now get down to what, for him, has always been the real business-engaging Iran on regional issues. As one administration official has acknowledged, the US president sees Iran as "the key to peace" in the Middle East. But first, as Obama told Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in one of his letters, the formality of the nuclear deal had to be concluded.
Obama wants to integrate Iran into a regional concert system presumably based on "equilibrium." However, this would be akin to establishing equilibrium in Europe at the height of Napoleon's power. Such a "balance" would naturally have been dictated by Napoleon, to the advantage of his imperial power. In other words, it doesn't stand a chance.
But the president's mind is set. Obama's likely next step will be to openly engage Iran on Syria. Indeed, the president addressed the matter in his first news conference after the deal was announced: "We're not going to solve the problems of Syria unless there's buy-in from the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, our Gulf partners... Iran is one of those players, and I think that it's important for them to be part of that conversation."
In fact, the administration was already laying the groundwork to bring Iran formally to the Syria table even before the conclusion of the deal. Earlier this month, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that during his recent trip to Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry raised the subject of establishing a Syria "contact group" consisting of regional and international actors, whose task would be to provide support for a political settlement. According to the paper, Kerry proposed including Iran in the group, alongside the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Kerry reportedly also expressed willingness to "recognize Iran's vital interests in Syria and the need to include it in seeking a solution." The report maintains, however, that Kerry told the Russians the deal would need to be signed first before bringing Iran in, "then there would be more readiness to discuss regional political issues."
To be sure, this proposal is not new. According to the Russians, Kerry first suggested including Iran in a parallel Syria track in early 2014. This soon became the administration's public position, and Obama explicitly began to talk about the need to have Iran at the table. For there to be a solution in Syria, "the various players involved, as well as the regional players - Turkey, Iran, Assad's patrons like Russia - are going to have to engage in a political conversation," Obama remarked at the G20 press conference in Brisbane last year.
Obama's core conceit is his roundtable approach to the region; a new regional equilibrium between the major players whose legitimate stakes should be preserved. But the notion that the solution to the Syrian rests on this balance of interests is a fallacy. It would be akin to saying that a diplomatic solution to the Lebanese war in the 1980's needed to simultaneously recognize and accommodate the interests of Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union. Such a proposal would have been met with ridicule. And it is equally fanciful in Syria.
Obama's declared position is that all "stakeholders" must understand that they can't win militarily, and should therefore accommodate each other's holdings. But the Lebanon precedent shows that this is a fallacy. Notwithstanding theories about how "fatigue" eventually led to compromise and a settlement to the Lebanese war, the reality is that one side came out on top. Having spent the 1980's waging war against the Iraqis and the Palestinians, Hafez Assad managed to neutralize all his Arab rivals. Israel, meanwhile, retreated to a security zone in the south and gave up on shaping the Lebanese political landscape. Finally, after cornering Saudi Arabia and receiving US acquiescence, Assad completed his domination by the end of the decade. Of course, the war didn't stop there. Assad worked hand in hand with his old strategic ally, Iran, and the two continued to wage war against Israel's security zone throughout the 1990's until all of Lebanon was under their control.
Similarly, the notion of balancing diametrically opposed interests in Syria is a mirage. One coalition has to emerge with the upper hand. By contrast, Obama has already telegraphed that he recognizes Iran's sphere of interest in Syria. Inevitably, this means adopting a highly accommodating posture toward Iran's client, Assad. Note, for example, how in his recent interview with Al-Arabiya, Kerry noticeably qualified his response regarding the Syrian dictator's fate, emphasizing that a solution would "ultimately, ultimately" be without Assad.
For the past four years, Obama has been protecting Iran's stake in Syria. Now he is openly recognizing its sphere of influence in the country. The US president might think that by forcing Iran down everyone's throat he is bringing "equilibrium" to the region. Under this rubric, he expects regional players to accept Iran's new position, supported by the White House, and come to an agreement that codifies it. This is a non-starter for Washington's old allies.
Obama's "equilibrium" is a fantasy. There can be no balancing of interests in Syria between the old pro-American camp and Iran. As Lee Smith reminded us, before the European powers could forge a balance of power arrangement at the 1815 Vienna Congress, Napoleon had to be defeated at Waterloo. Unlike post-revolutionary France, Iran is hardly a defeated power. It is a country whose expanding power in a chaotic region has just been crowned by a nuclear deal with the US, whose economy will benefit greatly from the end of sanctions, and whose direct military and political sway extend to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. And unlike the US, which has largely withdrawn from the Middle East, and wishes dearly to avoid being drawn into future conflicts, Iran has zero incentive to balance or compromise its interests in a region from which it simply cannot withdraw.
For Iran to seek the goal of regional "balance," on someone else's terms, rather than dominance or victory on its own terms, it would need first to be defeated in Syria. And its land bridge to Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon, through which it transfers long-range rockets and missiles, needs to be severed. All of Washington's old allies agree on this point.
But Obama will not adopt such a policy in his remaining 17 months in office. In truth, he is now more invested in protecting his relationship with Iran than he was during the negotiations. The regional players will now wait him out, in the hope that the next US president will adopt a serious containment policy that rolls back Iranian expansionism, starting with Syria.