Saving the Iran deal – and the Syrian state

Article Summary
Ratcheting up sanctions on Iran risks a chance to end the war in Syria.

As diplomacy around a possible US-Iranian nuclear deal enters a critical phase, Naftali Bennett, Israeli minister of economy, religious services, and Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, traveled to Washington last week to lobby key members of Congress. His goal was to persuade them not only to resist any relaxation of sanctions on Iran, but indeed to ratchet them up. Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Nov. 14, Bennett made a powerful argument whose potential resonance with lawmakers makes it worthy of closer scrutiny.

Iran, he said, is like a boxer who has been knocked to the mat, gasping for air as the referee counts, "Six, seven, eight ... " Why, then, should we help him to his feet just as we are about to win the match? Furthermore, Bennett asked, does anyone really believe that relaxing sanctions will lead to more leverage over Iran six months down the road when trying to extract further concessions and close the deal? Of course not. It is a simple matter of logic that we would have less leverage and thus that Iran would wiggle off the hook and continue along the path to a nuclear weapon.

Speaking the same evening at the Middle East Institute's annual conference, in Washington, US national security adviser Susan Rice made an equally important and powerful counterargument. Iran, she said, will not be bouncing rapidly back to economic health as a result of the very modest sanctions relief on the table with the current deal. Any economic relief would be “limited, temporary and reversible,” and crucially, “the amount of revenue that Iran will lose during the next six months would far exceed any amount of relief they might obtain as part of a first step agreement.” In other words, in Bennett’s analogy, even if Iran were slightly less groggy, it would remain punch-drunk on the mat.

A serious look at Iran’s economic situation shows this to be the most likely outcome. The reason that Iran’s economy has been so paralyzed is not only the extreme severity of the sanctions applied by the US-led coalition. Of equal importance is the eight years of inept economic management by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that exacerbated the Iranian economy’s deep structural flaws and primed it to be uniquely vulnerable. As Dariush Zahedi and I have argued elsewhere, Iran’s downward economic spiral will continue unless there are serious and sustained reforms, which cannot be magically implemented overnight, even in the absence of sanctions. A slight relaxation of sanctions will only slow the rate of decline, not initiate a burst of economic recovery that might lead Iran’s leaders to resume their intransigence. Iran will be on the mat for a long time to come.

The stakes attached to digesting these facts and acting accordingly are high, but not only because of the historically rare US-Iranian alignment that could yield a major victory for nuclear non-proliferation. In addition, Syria's fate and regional stability are dependent on the success of a US-Iranian deal.

Syria’s civil war, already monumentally destructive, is close to crossing a new threshold that could unleash even greater military carnage and humanitarian misery inside and outside its borders. A string of regime military victories, coupled with the deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, has secured President Bashar al-Assad’s position, meaning that continued attempts to defeat him militarily will simply lead to the further shredding of the country’s infrastructure and flight of its human capital. Reconstruction costs are already estimated to exceed $50 billion, underscoring the urgency of reaching a deal. In the meantime, fighting is set to enter a new and deadly phase that is even more explicitly sectarian in nature.

With the help of Iran and Hezbollah, the regime has hedged against its own collapse by building a 60,000-strong array of sectarian militias, the so-called National Defense Forces, which are mostly in Damascus but also in Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Suwayda and Tartous. The emergence of these forces, when pitted against the rising military power of Sunni extremists, has primed the country for severe episodes of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, Turkey, Jordan and especially Lebanon are reaching the limits of the refugees they can absorb. In Lebanon, for example, numerous provinces now host so many Syrian refugees that they outnumber the local population. This has led to a buildup of ethnic and sectarian tensions that could easily be ignited by a single provocation. With diseases such as polio resurfacing inside Syria, the upcoming third winter of the conflict is set to send the human cost of the conflict soaring.

Most critically, however, Syria has entered a de facto state of partition — among the deeply stalemated forces of the regime, opposition and the Kurds — and the burden of proof has shifted to anyone who wishes to argue that this could be reversed and the Syrian state reconstituted in the foreseeable future. Six more months of fighting would consolidate a Somalia-like trajectory, with a territorial entity split into hundreds of local fiefdoms ruled by militias, infested with al-Qaeda and possibly ungovernable for years to come. All regional actors would suffer from such an outcome.

All this makes it essential to emerge from the next six months with an Iran deal, because it is now clear that any agreement to end the Syrian crisis largely depends on it. While Russian intercession with the Assad regime will be important, there can also be no solution without active Iranian participation. The intertwining of Iranian and Syrian security forces during the course of the conflict, driven by the high strategic stakes for Iran as it tries to preserve its strategic depth and deterrent capability in the Levant, has given Tehran more leverage than any other outside actor in facilitating, or preventing, the mechanics of a leadership transition. Iran may well come to the conclusion that Assad needs to go, but it is exceedingly unlikely to take the risky steps necessary to act on that conclusion until it has secured a nuclear deal.

As David Ignatius argued Oct. 10 in The Washington Post, the historic US-Iranian rapprochement has opened the window ever so slightly to craft a new regional security architecture that tamps down the multiple fronts of conflict currently threatening to engulf the area. While Israel’s security concerns are both legitimate and deserving of serious attention, the high stakes, extreme time pressure and sheer complexity of the regional security puzzle leaves little room for maximalist positions like those currently being pushed by the hawks on Iran. Allowing the Obama administration the leeway to pursue the current deal with Iran is an essential first step toward a more stable and secure region for all its inhabitants.

Found in: us congress, us-iranian relations, syrian refugees, syrian civil war, sunni-shiite conflict, sanctions, obama administration, naftali bennett, mahmoud ahmadinejad, jihadists in syria, iranian threat, iranian nuclear issue, iranian economy, iranian-israeli conflict, bashar al-assad, al-qaeda

Scott A. Field is a visiting scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley.


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