Iran Likely Seeking to Exploit U.S. Weakness Over Syria

With U.S. attention no longer focused on Syria, Washington is now preparing to fill itself with more misguided hope that Iran finally wants a deal with the West over its controversial nuclear program.

In the public sphere, the issue of Iran’s nukes is taking center stage as that of Syria’s chemical weapons recedes into the shadows. But, in the world of geopolitics, they are inextricably linked, with both Washington and Tehran maneuvering over Iran’s nuclear program in light of what came to pass over Syria’s chemicals.

While Washington now casts a hopeful eye toward Tehran over recent happy talk from its new President and long-time Supreme Leader, the regime is likely playing a far more hard-headed game, capitalizing on apparent U.S. desires to avoid military action at all costs in order to secure an easing of sanctions.

Yes, U.S. President Barack Obama and his team have sought to convince our allies and adversaries that U.S. acquiescence in the Russian-driven deal on Syria, averting a military strike that had once seemed inevitable, does not presage any lessening of Washington’s commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – nor any lessening of its readiness to keep “all options on the table.”

Indeed, the White House argues, and perhaps even believes, that Obama’s threat to strike Syria with cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea for a day or two convinced Syrian president Bashar Assad to sign onto the deal that commits his government to relinquish its chemical weapons in the coming months.

More likely, Assad knows that, with global attention focused elsewhere, he can make sure that international inspectors never find all of his stockpiles and even refuse to relinquish the ones they do find. Thus, while Washington trumpets the U.S.-Russian deal as a success, the biggest winner is the very dictator who used chemical weapons, along with his benefactors in Moscow and Tehran.

That brings us to the U.S.-Iranian dance of recent days, which has predictably raised hopes in Washington.

Obama revealed in an ABC TV interview on Sunday that he and Iran’s new President, Hasan Rouhani, had exchanged letters; media around the world reported that the two might meet this month during the United Nations meetings in New York; Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed diplomacy with the West and advocated “heroic leniency;” and Obama expressed hope that Tehran would “take advantage of” the opportunity for fruitful diplomacy with Washington.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s nuclear chief announced that Iran had significantly reduced its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium – a stockpile that concerns the West because of how easily Iran could elevate it to weapons-grade uranium – by converting it to nuclear fuel. Then, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that Rouhani was prepared to shut down Iran’s once-secret nuclear site at Fordo, which concerns the West because it is well-fortified against attack and plays a key role in Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.

Theoretically, of course, all of this could add up to something new – a real desire in Tehran to cut a deal with the West over its nuclear program and, in return, win an end to the sanctions that have damaged Iran’s economy.

Indeed, former top Israeli intelligence official Amos Yadlin tied Rouhani’s reported willingness to close Fordo to the “catastrophic effect” of global sanctions on Iran’s economy. The World Economic Forum reported that among 148 countries studied, Iran’s 30.6 percent inflation in 2012 was the world’s highest, and the Central Bank of Iran reported that its inflation has grown worse since then.

Tehran undoubtedly would welcome an easing of sanctions. That doesn’t mean, however, that Tehran is seeking it from a position of weakness, as implied by Yadlin’s comments, Der Spiegel’s story, or the World Economic Forum figures. If anything, Tehran may feel stronger than ever.

After all, when Obama announced earlier this month that he would seek congressional approval of a U.S. military strike in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers that Tehran would interpret a U.S. failure to follow through on Obama’s threats of military action as a sign of U.S. weakness. Nothing has changed that reality.

In addition, the New York Times reports, the Obama administration last week “eased longstanding restraints on humanitarian and goodwill activities between Iran and the United States, including athletic exchanges,” marking “at least the second relaxation of Iranian sanctions this year by the American government.” That step apparently didn’t cost Tehran anything in return.

Besides, Iran has multiple routes to nuclear weaponry that don’t run through Fordo, and nuclear experts say that its claim to have reduced its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium is deceptively exaggerated.

So, rather than a weak nation that’s desperately seeking relief from crippling sanctions, Iran could well be something quite different: a nation that doesn’t take Obama’s threat of force seriously; that thinks Washington craves a face-saving deal with Iran to accompany its deal with Syria; and that assumes it can secure a further easing of sanctions from Washington with happy talk and vague promises.

It may be right.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.

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