03/01/2013 02:03 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

Obama Clings to his Three No's on the Syrian Crisis

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has dispelled some of the ambiguity surrounding the second Obama administration's policy towards Syria during his European tour this week, and his meetings with European Foreign Ministers as well as with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In parallel to this, in Kazakhstan's former capital Almaty, the Obama administration also clarified its position regarding Iran during the round of talks concerning its nuclear issue, between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. The outcome, very briefly, was that Obama has in his second term reinforced the policy of dialogue under any circumstances, whether it leads to the results sought-after or not, and that he has taken the decision to hand over leadership on the Syrian issue to both Moscow and Tehran, each in its own way. The timing for making clear the direction taken by the second administration has come right before Kerry's arrival to Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. At each of these stops, Kerry will not hear flattery concerning the fast-receding policy of the United States, viewed by some as yet another testimony to the "reputation of betrayal" that has often accompanied the relationship of the different U.S. Administrations to their "friends". He will hear complaints and expressions of discontent, and warnings about the grave consequences that would result from the Obama administration granting its approval to a role to be played by Iran in the fate of Syria in particular, after having heard from Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from afar that arming and strengthening the Syrian opposition would turn the crisis into "a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq." Indeed, the atmosphere in the Middle East has become heavily charged with the noise of the drums of destructive war between Sunnis and Shiites - in fact wars by proxy between Iran and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of which the arena would be a Middle Eastern one par excellence, starting from Syria. What the leaderships and the peoples of the region have in mind is a fundamental question that hounds Obama's second administration no matter how much it may appear to be rushing to get away from the region, namely: What is the United States' long-term strategy towards Iran? And is the current Administration really innocent of creating confessional wars between Sunnis and Shiites, or does it in fact have a hand in creating them?

These questions will not just haunt the Obama administration through its new State Secretary John Kerry, but also the leaderships of the GCC - as well as Egypt and Turkey to a lesser extent - as they must now seriously reexamine their own positions after the Obama administration has made its position clear and dispelled all ambiguity. There is thus no need to hide behind one's finger or bury one's head in the sand, especially as the coming phase could turn into an inferno for everyone if no new policies are laid out that would take into account what the second Obama administration has made clear at the outset. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi summed up the outcome of the Kazakhstan talks when he said that "things are taking a turning point and I think the Almaty meeting will be (seen as) a milestone" in relations between Tehran and the six countries. Salehi was actually talking about the relationship with the United States, as it is the most important and represents a pillar of Iran's nuclear, regional and bilateral strategy equally. Salehi said that the flexibility shown by the six countries - implicitly referring here to the United States - "is indicative of the fact that they are moving in the right direction," in terms of changing their strategy towards Iran, which could represent a major turning point in the course of negotiations. In appearance, what the Almaty talks were focused on regarded the Iranian nuclear issue. Yet in reality, this round of talks represented the starting point of the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran under the second Obama administration.

At the nuclear level, the six countries have backtracked on what they had previously demanded from Tehran, and have provided it with more incentive and a lesser amount of threats, by offering to suffice themselves with "decreasing" reserves of uranium enriched at 20 percent and to "reduce" the sanctions imposed on Iran, in exchange for Iran "suspending" uranium enrichment at 20 percent. Salehi described these suggestions as "the most realistic and logical," asserting Iran's "right" to enrich uranium at any percentage, whether it be five or twenty percent. He described the talks as "positive, [having] been put on the right track and moving in the right direction". He added that "the process has started" and that "I am very optimistic about the outcome, [which will] eventually be in the benefit of the two sides".

What Iran's skillful policy has done is that it has engaged in "counter-containment" at the start of the second Obama administration's term in office through the language of optimism and of positively responding to flexibility, as expressed by Iran's Foreign Minister. Indeed, Tehran knows exactly what it wants from Washington, and is perfectly well aware of what Washington does not want from Iran under Obama. The Islamic Republic of Iran obtained some very valuable gifts from former U.S. President George W. Bush through his wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, both of which represented favors for Iran free of charge, and it is still determined to take advantage of President Barack Obama's refusal to get dragged into a confrontation with Iran, either directly on its home soil, or when it wages its own war in Syria in a direct manner and violates Security Council resolutions without anyone daring to hold it to account.

From the beginning, Tehran made it clear to the first Obama administration that what it wanted was based on three priorities: first, a direct bilateral relationship with the United States on the basis of recognizing the legitimacy of the Iranian Revolution and of the Islamic Republic, and of not interfering in its affairs in any way in terms of helping the Iranian opposition or reformist movements; second, for Washington to realize that Iran will never give up the "right" to enrich uranium at any percentage it sees fit, because Iran - as a leadership and as a people - will not back down on its nuclear efforts and ambitions, which it describes as peaceful, while the West considers them to be nuclear military ambitions; and third, for Washington to acknowledge the regional role played by the Islamic Republic of Iran, whether in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. Indeed, Iran will not scale down such a role, and what it wants from Washington is for it to take this into account, admit to it and recognize it when drafting its strategic policies towards the region.

John Kerry offered Tehran a down payment in terms of the bilateral relationship when he said last Wednesday that Iran had an "elected" government. This had previously been said by the new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, known for his stances opposed to further pressure on Tehran, during his confirmation hearings before the Senate. Hagel had said then, at the end of January, that Iran had "an elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not." Kerry, exactly one month later, while in France alongside French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, said that "Iran is a country with a government that was elected and that sits in the United Nations", adding that "it is important for us to deal with nation-states in a way that acts in the best interests of all of us in the world." Such testimonies coming from Kerry and Hagel are exactly what Tehran had sought to obtain from the second administration. Indeed, these are radical stances that in effect negate what had been coming out of Washington under the first administration or before it, in terms of shedding doubt on the fairness of Iran's 2009 elections and directing accusations at the current government of falsifying the results of these elections. Thus, Washington these days seems as if in the process of meeting the first of Tehran's demands, one that matters greatly to Iran's leadership at the highest level. It also seems to be in the process of meeting another demand, regarding the nuclear issue, as appeared in the talks in Kazakhstan, as well as a third one, in Syria in particular and through Iraq.

In Iraq, it has become clear that the Obama administration does not mind the widespread and deep-rooted influence held by Iran, this after the United States has withdrawn from the country weighed down by the burden of the exorbitant cost of a war that brought regional accomplishments for Iran but not for the United States. The Obama administration prefers to overlook the dangers which beset Iraq today, and which Nuri Al-Maliki described as ones that could turn into a "sectarian war" between Sunnis and Shiites. Such a war - as he warned - is contingent upon the shifting balance of military power on the Syrian scene, in the fierce war raging between government forces, backed directly by Iran and its allies, and Syrian opposition forces, some of which are considered branches of al-Qaeda, like the al-Nusra Front and others. In other words, sectarian, civil and divisive wars threaten to engulf any region in which Iran has influence, based on the fact that Iran's leadership considers itself to be the guardian of the rights of Shiites, wherever they may be. And these are the same wars which Sunni jihadists wage wherever they find fertile soil for waging their sectarian wars at any cost.

The second Obama administration seems as if it sees in these sectarian wars between Muslims the mutual exhaustion of others, a matter unconnected to the major interests of the United States, or as if it is fleeing to the front, out of fear of being held responsible for the outcome of its policies in Syria in particular. At this stage, Obama still clings to his three no's: no direct or indirect American military intervention; no direct or indirect military support of the Syrian opposition; and no to a military solution or settlement in Syria.

The fourth "no" - no to President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power - is wavering to the tune of the relationship with Russia. Indeed, the second Obama administration has decided for its task to become that of providing support to Russia's leading role in Syria by pressuring the Syrian opposition to engage in dialogue and negotiations with Assad remaining throughout the transitional process, and by refusing to allow it to be armed. John Kerry has thus limited the quality of assistance to the opposition and reduced it to medicine and food, in exchange for submitting to his insistence for it to attend the Rome conference of the "Friends of Syria." Russia pledged to pressure the Syrian government in exchange for American pressures on the opposition, but had previously said that it had tried repeatedly to pressure Assad and had not been able to influence him. It had also hinted many times in the past to the fact that the real actor with the regime in Damascus was the Islamic Republic of Iran and not Russia, despite supplying the regime militarily and protecting it both diplomatically and politically.

Who is telling the truth? And what guarantees are there? The world had been optimistic about a qualitative shift in the understanding reached between the United States and Russia in Geneva exactly nine months ago, when a process of transition had been agreed upon from the current regime to a new one in Damascus. Today, after neutralizing the "Assad obstacle" with the United States ceasing to demand that he step down and leave, and after excluding a military solution by halting military aid to the opposition, the race has started between slow-paced diplomacy and promises of hurrying to activate the promises made in Geneva after changing the conditions of the process of political transition.

All this while the humanitarian catastrophe worsens, extremism grows and sectarian wars warn of terrible dark days ahead.