Iran and the Syrian Gambit

07/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. has three key interests with respect to Iran: containing its nuclear program, limiting its reach in the Middle East and, quite possibly, extending Iranian influence in Afghanistan in cooperation with the U.S. These three interests have to be pursued against the ever-shifting backdrop of the protests. At this point, what looks like the most likely outcome of the protests over the election provide both encouraging and cautionary signals. The challenge for Obama has been to recognize both and to respond appropriately while keeping his eye on all three of these balls at once. For this week, at least, Obama and his State Department get an A. Maybe even an A+, but the week is not over yet.

First, where do things stand with the protests? The government's repressive measures appear to be increasingly effective in suppressing the movement to the streets. At the same time, however, there is word that Rafsanjani may have collected enough anti-Khamenei votes in the Assembly of Experts to force a compromise, possibly in the form of a run-off election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. At the same time, it seems unlikely that Rafsanjani has the votes to have Khamenei removed outright. The outcome, in other words, looks increasingly like something like a power-sharing agreement between the clerics allied around Rafsanjani and the militarist/nationalists (including plenty of clerics) around Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, in which Khamenei will remain Supreme Leader but the orthodox clerics will get some concessions -- possibly starting with the rumored run-off election -- and will insist on a greater say in how things are done from here on out.

Understanding the fact that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are political rather than religious figures -- and that their opponents, led by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, speak for the religious voice in Iran's leadership -- is directly relevant to thinking about Iran's nuclear program. The fact that Ahmadinejad is on the less religious end of the spectrum helps explain why his government might be pursuing a nuclear weapons program despite years of statements by Iran's leading religious authorities that nuclear weapons are an offense against God. One positive outcome of a power-sharing arrangement might be a government that is more willing to bend on issues relating to its nuclear program.

That's the first U.S. concern, and it is why a careful and cautious wait-and-see attitude is exactly what has been needed. Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- could be less helpful at the moment than for Obama to start making the kinds of fire-breathing statements that neocons and progressives alike keep calling for. On the nuclear issue the U.S. has to hope for a change or partial change in leadership that will result in a government more favorable to negotiation, not that anti-nuclear sentiment will somehow bubble up out of a popular movement toward revolt. To start aligning the U.S. directly with the protesters now risks energizing the nationalists at the expense of the Islamists. That is exactly what happened in 2002. It was Bush's idiotic Axis of Evil speech that propelled Ahmadinejad to power in the first place. After 9/11 Iran provided crucial support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan; with that speech, many Iranians suddenly feared that their country was next on the list for invasion. Ahmadinejad rode that fear to power, and his supporters continue to beat that nationalist drum, exemplified by statements from government officials and pro-government clerics like Ahmed Khatami referring to leaders of the protests as "supported by the U.S. and Israel." Obama's careful avoidance of anything that could be construed as belligerence has been exactly the right strategy to give Rafsanjani and his supporters move to maneuver.

The second key U.S. concern is Iranian influence in the Middle East. On this score, events in Iran proper are not the only story to be watching this week. There have also been a series of extremely lethal bombings in Iraq, all of them aimed at killing Shiites: 78 dead in Baghdad on Wednesday, 73 in Shiite Turkmen town of Taza Khurmatu, at least 13 dead in Baghdad on Friday. A new Iranian government that includes a greater representation of religious orthodox clerics is unlikely to watch as their fellow Shiites are attacked by Suni extremists bent on destabilizing Iraq by fomenting inter-ethnic conflict. (It's hard to see how anyone could argue that the Iranian government should stand by in that situation, actually, particularly for conservatives who support Israel and clamor about the need for the U.S. to take action in response to the persecution of Christians in Africa.) So it is unlikely that the government that emerges out of these protests will be less prone to extending its influence into Iraq, particularly after the U.S. troops are gone.

But Iran's interests in Iraq are not our only concern. Our bigger long-term concern is with Iran's role in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. This week two things were announced. First, the U.S. is sending an ambassador to Damascus. Second, Jimmy Carter -- working with Egypt and Syria -- may have worked out terms for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier whose capture by Hamas was one of the triggering events of Israel's invasion of Gaza. HaAretz reports that Shalit's release will take place within a few days as part of a prisoner exchange, and that the initial proposal was floated by Carter during a visit to Damascus and Gaza last year.

These stories may very well be connected, and they point to the almost incredible possibility that the U.S. may finally be ready to have a serious foreign policy in the Middle East. For what it's worth, I have been saying for many years that relations with Syria are the key. Here's just one reason: if Syria can be brought on board with a peace effort, Iran no longer has direct supply lines into Lebanon. Meanwhile, Syria has itself been supporting Hamas in Gaza (hence its role in negotiating the release of Shalit) as well as meddling in Lebanon. But while Syria has been notoriously difficult to deal with in the past, there is no reason in principle why progress cannot be made. Assad is an opportunist, not a mad ideologue, and certainly not a religious fanatic. (The single stupidest neocon phrase -- against some pretty tough competition! -- has to be "the Shiite Crescent," an arc of states comprising Iran, Syria and Lebanon that are supposed to represent the religiously defined threat to American interests. Since Syria is less than 5% Shiite and is ruled by an Alawite minority, it was never terribly clear what this was supposed to mean.)

What Syria wants is simple: they want the Golan Heights back. Which is where the U.S. comes in. There have been repeated points at which Israel and Syria came close to substantive negotiations on the issue of the Golan, only to see those efforts fail. But there has never been a sustained and substantive American presence in the dialogue. If Assad can be persuaded that Syria has more to gain by engagement with the West than by an alliance with Iran, that immediately improves the situation in Lebanon, improves the security of Israel's northern border, and improves the situation in Western Iraq. Syria's participation in arranging the release of Shalit -- even if that ultimately doesn't happen -- is a powerful and positive sign that Assad is open to the possibility.

Then there is the third U.S. interest and a tantalizing possibility: that Iran might resume its cooperation with U.S. operations in Afghanistan. As this piece from Stratfor nicely explains, Iran's 500-plus mile border with Afghanistan, strong ethnic connections to Afghan Pashtuns, and available ports make it an ideal partner. In other words, at the very same time that the U.S. has a strong interest in limiting Iran's reach to the West beyond Iraq, we may have another strong interest in encouraging Iranian engagement to the East. The Sunni attacks against Shiites in Iraq are part of the larger conflict between Sunni radicals -- think Taliban -- and Shiite Iran.

So the Obama administration has had to play a very careful hand: do nothing to repeat the stupidity that helped launch Ahmadinejad to the presidency; develop the opening that Jimmy Carter has helped develop and initiate an engagement with Syria in the hope of isolating Iran to the West; and at the same time look ahead to the role that the version of the Iranian regime that emerges out of a compromise in the Assembly of Experts might play in Afghanistan. This week, Obama and his State Department have done all three brilliantly.

YOU MAY LIKE