Although President Barack Obama may soon launch a limited military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, a second Middle Eastern country has loomed large in his administration's calculations over the decision.
One of the risks of "doing nothing" in response to the alleged large-scale attacks of Aug. 21 on the people of East Ghouta, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Aug. 30, is that "Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attacks, will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons."
The "hit-Syria-to-deter-Iran" argument is embedded in the notion that unless the United States acts forcefully after concluding that the regime has used chemical weapons, U.S. credibility will suffer -- possibly prompting Israel to strike Iran. But Tehran figures in the Syria crisis in a number of other ways, and there is evidence that the Obama administration's thinking about Iran's role is evolving -- as is Iran's own assessment about how to contain the Syrian civil war.
Proponents of tougher action against Tehran have long argued that muscular U.S. intervention to remove the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would deal a heavy blow to Iranian influence in the region. Syria, after all, is Iran's only durable ally among Arab nation states -- it was the only Arab country that sided with Iran during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Syria is also the conduit for Tehran's delivery of weapons and money to Hezbollah, the most powerful pro-Iranian organization in the Arab world.
As the civil war has dragged on, however, the notion that removing Assad would be a pure strategic win for the United States and its allies has become muddied. Ironically, if Assad were to be removed now, the biggest beneficiaries would likely be Sunni Muslim radicals who hate Iran as passionately as they do Syria's Alawite minority, Israelis and the U.S.
Then there's the fact that Iran is one of only two foreign countries with real leverage over the Assad regime -- the other is Russia. For the past two years, the U.S. has resisted calls to include Iran in multilateral talks on Syria's future, but that position appears to be changing as the Syrian crisis deepens and a less confrontational government has taken office in Iran.
Russia and the United Nations have insisted for months that Iran, as a key outside player in the conflict, must be invited to any new peace talks in Geneva if there is to be any chance of progress toward a political solution. The Obama administration refused but later hedged, noting that the U.N. would be the one to issue invitations.
In his interview with the PBS Newshour on Aug. 28, Obama appeared to open the door a bit wider to participation by Tehran. "We hope that, in fact, ultimately, a political transition can take place inside of Syria, and we're prepared to work with anybody -- the Russians and others -- to try to bring the parties together to resolve the conflict," he said.
While Obama did not clarify whether "others" included Iran, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Jeffrey Feltman was in Tehran a day earlier meeting with Iran's new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Feltman is currently U.N. Undersecretary General for political affairs, but the Iranian press identified him as a "senior U.S. official."
"Mr. Feltman shared the U.N. position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table," U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said.
It's a safe bet that Feltman would have informed his old bosses in Washington of Zarif's response. Sultan Qaboos of Oman, a long-time intermediary between the U.S. and Iran, was also in Tehran this week, and Syria was almost certainly discussed.
Iran has strong historical and military reasons for continuing to support the Syrian government, but its commitment to Assad as an individual is not absolute. As the death toll has risen in Syria, Iranian interests in the region have suffered because of rising sectarian antagonism pitting Sunni against Shiite.
Hezbollah, which sent fighters into Syria in June to help Assad's forces recapture the strategically located town of Qusayr, has lost popularity in Lebanon and apparently provoked bomb attacks on its home turf. Iran's support for Assad also prevented any reconciliation with Egypt while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, and alienated the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, a long-time recipient of Iranian largesse.
Then there is the domestic Iranian aspect. Support for Assad has never been strong among ordinary Iranians, who resent the use of increasingly scarce hard currency to back a foreign government.
Secretary Kerry, in noting Iranians have been the victims of chemical weapons attacks themselves, was trying to push another Iranian button -- the memory of being on the receiving end of sarin gas during the Iran-Iraq war, when the world stood aside and did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein.
It may be harder for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to defend Assad in light of a U.S. intelligence assessment released Friday that said the Syrian government targeted a dozen locations in Damascus's eastern suburbs with rockets tipped with nerve gas, killing at least 1,429 people, including 426 children.
According to the granddaughter of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former Iranian president Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- Rouhani’s mentor -- has warned that “a government that uses chemical bombs against its people will face hard consequences, just like Saddam, who earned eternal shame in the bombing of Halabja and suffered such a horrible fate.”
While some Iranian officials have threatened to retaliate against Israel and the United States for any U.S. strikes on Syria, it is doubtful that Rouhani would risk jeopardizing chances for progress in nuclear negotiations with the United States -- progress that could bring Iran urgently needed sanctions relief.
And those working to mediate a political solution in Syria have urged the United States to openly support inviting Iran to new peace talks in Geneva, thereby acknowledging that Iran can have as much influence on stabilizing a volatile neighborhood as on contributing to violence -- and giving it more incentive to do the former than the latter.