Given the level of invested American prestige, the momentum toward launching a strike on Syria appears unstoppable. But US President Barack Obama can still use a likely forthcoming congressional authorization of war to win without an actual war — if he talks to Iran.
As Winston Churchill said, “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” The Middle Eastern tinderbox is no place for planning and precision. Not only could Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who allegedly used chemical weapons while UN inspectors were a few miles away — do it again, but he also could pull in other countries and trigger regional mayhem. If the balance of power remains intact, Assad will take revenge on the rebels; if it tilts to the other side, it will be a godsend for Salafists and al-Qaeda. Any power vacuum is likely to be filled by ethnic cleansing.
Some might believe that once the dust settles after the Tomahawks destroy their targets, all stakeholders will politely turn toward the negotiating table to talk peace. They will not.
A military strike on Syria might also jeopardize chances for resolving another chronic Middle Eastern predicament: Iran’s nuclear crisis. Although President Hassan Rouhani’s success depends on rescuing Iran's anemic economy, this feat is nearly impossible without sanctions relief. An attack on Syria is likely to delay, if not derail, a nuclear diplomatic breakthrough.
Any framing of an attack on Syria will likely play into the hands of hard-liners in Tehran and Washington. The Obama administration’s rhetoric that punishing Assad is a deterrent against Iran ever daring to cross the nuclear Rubicon will give credence to the motto of Iranian hard-liners that the conflict in Syria is in fact about Iran. They will argue that overthrowing Assad is designed to subvert Iran and its role in the region.
In the meantime, American hard-liners are likely to use the precedent the president sets by asking for authorization to use military force to prepare their own request in advance for striking Iran. They will likely argue that precious time will be wasted on congressional debates if Iran dashes toward a nuclear weapon.
Not only will these undertakings render trust-building with Iran more difficult, but the polarization between the permanent members of the UN Security Council will also risk unraveling their unity.
Instead, after endorsement by Congress, the president should do what most American presidents have done in the past: issue an ultimatum. By asking the Syrian regime to dismantle its chemical-weapons inventory, he could prevent their further use and uphold the international norms. Yet the mere threat of a limited strike will not convince Assad. What has a better chance of achieving that goal is advice from Syria’s Iranian ally.
Iranian leaders find themselves in an uncomfortable position. As victims of the deadliest use of chemical weapons since World War I, Iranians are loath to put themselves on the wrong side of history. The leadership — as revealed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani — seems bitterly divided. But they are not keen on giving up their strategic interests in Syria, either.
If Washington reaches out to Tehran, much like the way the United Nations and some European countries have, it could test whether the new Iranian president could be a partner in restoring regional stability.
Cooperation there could facilitate nuclear diplomacy. The US could offer more sanctions relief if Iran shows a more constructive role in regional affairs, while Iran could make more concessions if the US recognizes Iran’s regional interests and tries to find a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic.
The Syrian crisis is as much about chemistry as the Iranian nuclear crisis is about physics. The underlying problem is political, and President Obama knows it.
Yasmin Alem is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and an expert on Iranian domestic politics. She is the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System. On Twitter: @YasminAlem