What Does Syria Teach Us About Iran?

November 19, 2013

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Chemical

Related Country: 

  • Syria


  • Joseph DeThomas
  • David Kay
  • Michael Singh

Moderated by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control


In March, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer."  Earlier, in August 2012, he warned that for the United States, the use of such weapons in Syria would cross a red line and would lead to "enormous consequences."  The August 21, 2013 sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb – widely assessed to have been carried out by the Assad regime – resulted in the threat of U.S. missile strikes, then an effort to have the U.S. Congress endorse such strikes, and then hurried diplomacy by Russia that produced a chemical weapon disarmament plan.

What does the U.S. response to the use of unconventional weapons in a Middle Eastern conflict tell us about present U.S. efforts to prevent another country – Iran – from developing nuclear weapons?  What lessons might Iran, and U.S. allies, draw from the Syrian example?

These questions were addressed at a private roundtable discussion hosted by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control on October 28, 2013 – about one week before a new round of nuclear talks among the P5+1 countries and Iran began on November 7.  The panelists were Joseph DeThomas, who served most recently as an advisor in the Office of the Secretary of State's Senior Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, David Kay, a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and Michael Singh, Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The panelists concluded that the U.S. response in Syria provides important insights into the situation in Iran.  The likelihood that the United States will use force in Iran during the remainder of the Obama administration, and the credibility of that threat, have both decreased following the Syria episode.  U.S. leadership and credibility in the region have also been damaged.  Congress remains more likely to support the use of force in Iran than it did in Syria, though the overall appetite for military action, in Congress and among the public, has decreased.   As in Syria, the panelists found that a third party – most likely Russia or China – could play a role in brokering a negotiated solution with Iran.  The panelists also agreed that such a solution may be more likely with Iran at present, though there was a difference of opinion as to the reasons for this.  While Iran's new president is anxious to deliver on a campaign promise of sanctions relief, the panelists were uncertain as to whether this would be enough to motivate Iran to accept sufficient restrictions on its nuclear work.

Following is the moderators’ summary of the discussion.  The findings are a composite of the panelists’ individual views.  No finding should be attributed to any single panelist, or be seen as a statement of policy of any government.

The chance that America might attack Iran’s nuclear sites was small before the episode with Syria; now it is even smaller.

The United States announced that it would take military action against Syria following the large-scale use of sarin gas near Damascus on August 21.  One goal of military action was to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons.  A second was to degrade the regime's ability to launch further chemical attacks.  U.S. allies in the region supported these strikes and expected the United States to launch them in order to defend its clearly set red line. 

However, the Obama administration was unable to win support for military action from the public, from Congress, or from the British government.  Faced with diminished support, the administration decided to cancel the strikes and throw its support behind a Russian-brokered disarmament plan.  The panelists differed on the value of this outcome; some panelists found that it was better than other alternatives.  In any case, the result is that governments in the Middle East perceive (correctly or not) the United States as either unwilling or unable to act forcefully in the region.  The panelists agreed that these governments now believe that the chance of the United States using force to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, which was already low, is nearing zero.

This belief further degrades U.S. credibility in the region, already damaged by the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring and to ensuing political upheaval in Egypt.  The panelists were concerned about a likely erosion of coordination on Iran between the United States and key regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.  For these countries, the Syria episode is the latest demonstration of the U.S. inability to articulate and adhere to a clear strategy, one which allies can either "sign onto or grumble about" – or both, according to the panelists.  The absence of a centralizing U.S. policy may lead to individual hedging behavior; each country will seek to defend its own interests rather than looking to the United States.  The result is a more unpredictable environment and a decline in U.S. influence.

This apparent loss in credibility has heightened skepticism about the present U.S. effort to reach an interim accord with Iran.  The opinion in the Middle East is that the United States lost in Syria, and that Russia and Iran won.  The United States painted itself into a corner and then, to save face, accepted a deal that makes the continuity of the Assad regime essential to the deal's success.  Syria’s chemical weapon program was a small price for the regime to pay for such a benefit.  Similarly, the United States has long called for an end to those elements of Iran's nuclear program that would give Iran the ability to make nuclear weapons.  In the wake of the Syria deal, U.S. allies in the Middle East are worried that the Obama administration may be willing to allow dangerous elements of Iran's nuclear program to remain in place.

The Syria episode also showed the danger of proposing force before public opinion can be shaped and prepared by a consistent message.  That message must explain the threat that military action will address and be sufficiently convincing to overcome public fatigue with expensive wars.  To win public support for the use of force in Iran, the panelists concluded that the administration would need to show undeniable evidence of Iran's nuclear weapon aims (such as fabricating bomb components or an actual nuclear test).  Iran has been careful not to provide such a provocation.  That policy is likely to continue under Hassan Rouhani, Iran's new president, who is less confrontational than his predecessor.

In fact, under President Rouhani Iran has shown a new willingness to engage in nuclear talks.  This willingness may complicate any effort to gain public support for the use of force.  Even if multilateral talks continue without a deal, or if Iran fails to fully respect the terms of an interim agreement, the public is unlikely to view military action as a solution.

According to one panelist, military action in Iran is less likely because the U.S. military leadership seems resolutely against force.  This is primarily because of the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The military leadership now wants to rebuild from previous wars, not start a new one.

Most panelists concluded that Iran no longer sees the use of force by the United States as the alternative to a deal; only sanctions are.  Although Iran dislikes sanctions, they are considerably easier to cope with than war.  And Iran worries less now about the prospect of Israel using force on its own.  With less to fear now from force, Iran may believe that the risk of continuing its nuclear progress, or even the risk of making a dash for the bomb, is lower.  If regime-endangering war is off the table, Iran may expect more generous treatment in exchange for giving up its nuclear potential.  This expectation may already be at work in talks with the P5+1 in Geneva.   

While the panelists found that military action is less likely against Iran in the aftermath of the decision not to use force in Syria, this does not reflect a judgment by the panel that force should be used in Iran, or should have been used in Syria.  

Congress did not support a U.S. attack on Syria and was willing to endorse a negotiated settlement that precluded an attack.  The reverse is true for Iran, where Congress is more skeptical of a deal, and more likely to support military action, than is the administration.

The panelists agreed that the administration is not likely to consult Congress on any decision to use force in Iran, because force would be used only in an emergency – a sudden threat from Iran that could not be dealt with short of force.  The nature of the emergency would be part of the post facto justification provided to Congress, which Congress is likely to accept. Telegraphing plans for a military strike by seeking Congressional authorization in advance could give Iran considerable warning and an opportunity to disperse and hide its nuclear assets.  Syria reportedly dispersed parts of its chemical program when it expected an attack.

Congressional opposition to using force in Syria is not indicative of its views on Iran, according to the panelists.  Congress has shown itself to be far more militant than the administration on sanctions, and more militant on the question of using force.  One panelist noted that the willingness of some in Congress to advocate the use of force has been cost free, since no recent administration has shown a preference for military action against Iran.   

Congress was nevertheless surprised at the public backlash against the planned use of force in Syria.  Congress heard from an American public more skeptical of war after the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.  This skepticism extended especially to claims about the threat from weapons of mass destruction.  Because of this backlash, Congress may be slower to endorse war as a solution in Iran than it was before the Syria episode.

The panelists found that sanctions, and not the use of force, will be the main issue for Congress.  Congress will be reluctant to roll back the sanctions it has imposed unless Iran gives up its nuclear weapon option completely.  Indeed, Congress is likely to approve additional sanctions if an interim deal with Iran is not struck soon.  And even if an interim deal is reached, the administration can offer only to roll back some existing sanctions on its own; it cannot roll back all without Congressional action.  This restriction limits the administration’s freedom of action in multilateral talks.

Congress is skeptical of the P5+1 talks in Geneva and concerned about where Iran's nuclear program will be allowed to "rest" as part of any agreement.  The concern is that Iran will be left with a nuclear "breakout" capability: the ability to make nuclear weapons before the United States has time to act.  Forthcoming hearings are likely to delve into the components of a deal and to reveal uncertainties about the latent nuclear capability that Iran would maintain.  Good intelligence will be necessary in order to reassure Congress that Iranian cheating would be caught before it is too late.  In addition, Congress is likely to insist that any deal be backed by a broad coalition of countries, including U.S. allies in the Middle East.  Without Israel and other major U.S. allies on board – which does not appear to be the case – Congressional opposition is likely to be intense.  Given these requirements, administration witnesses are likely to face a daunting task when presenting any interim agreement on Capitol Hill.  

Russia brokered a disarmament plan for Syria's chemical weapon stockpile, which saved Russia's client, the Assad regime, from military attack.  There is room for Russia, or another trusted "third party," to play a similar role in dealing with Iran.

The Iranian government, like the Assad regime in Syria, is linked with and reliant on Russia.  Russia seized the opportunity to save Assad that was created when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Syria could avoid a U.S. attack if it were to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.  Russia used its leverage in Syria – its "sharp elbow" – to force Assad to accept a disarmament plan.  The panelists agreed that Russia, or perhaps China, could play a pivotal role in forcing Iran to adhere to the confines of a nuclear deal, although their role would be different than that played by Russia for Syria.

The panelists were wary of Russia's possible role in Iran, as they did not believe that a Russian brokered deal would meet U.S. security needs.  The panelists were more optimistic about China's possible role, though they were doubtful that China would take the lead on Iran without full Russian buy-in.  This is because the two governments appear to have worked out a deal on Iran and North Korea, with China ceding the lead on Iran to Russia.

Both Russia and China have an interest in preserving the status quo in Iran.  China has additional interests related to its own economic development, which relies on a steady and reliable source of oil.  China is Iran's largest oil customer.  A deal on Iran's nuclear program would mean a gradual re-opening of the Iranian oil tap and an end to destabilizing talk of war.  Conversely, if the negotiations with Iran fail, it would likely mean more energy sanctions and the risk of additional U.S. penalties against foreign entities that trade with Iran. 

Iran's new leadership may provide China and Russia with more room to maneuver.  Since Hassan Rouhani took office in August, his administration has adopted a friendlier tone than its predecessor.  This has created a dynamic within the P5+1 that favors compromise, although the outcome may not be a good one for the United States.   Russia now sees, in President Rouhani, a flexibility that was absent under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  At the same time, Russia senses that the United States is eager for a deal and willing to step down from the "maximalist" position of zero enrichment in Iran. 

It was this new alignment of interests that engendered the present talks in Geneva.   As these talks continue, Russia and China will have undoubted influence.  They could help broker a deal and use their influence to get (and keep) Iran on board.

The deal with Syria showed Iran that the United States was willing to make a disarmament pact with a hostile regime.  This fact may have encouraged Iran to enter the Geneva talks.  Nevertheless, as with Syria, there are costs to the United States in striking such a deal.

A possible benefit of the Syria episode is the demonstration to Iran that the United States is willing to make a disarmament deal, and to stick by it.  Moreover, the Syria deal is limited to weapons of mass destruction and actually reduced pressure on the Assad regime.  This is noteworthy because the United States had called for the regime's overthrow, and this remains explicit U.S. policy.  Regime change in Iran has not been explicit U.S. policy for some time, although the Supreme Leader and other leading officials fear this is a U.S. objective.  The Syria example, however, may have led Iran’s leadership to believe that the United States would be satisfied with something less than an end to the Islamic Republic.  Such a belief may have encouraged Iran to participate in the Geneva talks.

The deal struck with Syria did not address the entirety of Assad's chemical weapon program, but was considered sufficient to meet the stated disarmament objectives.  The panelists discussed the precedent this sets for Iran.  If a comprehensive accord is reached eventually in Geneva, it may not reveal everything about the history and intent of Iran's nuclear work.  But the accord may provide sufficient confidence that the United States and its allies would catch meaningful cheating by Iran.

The panelists discussed the contours of such a deal with Iran and what it would need to include.  They agreed that it would be necessary to cap fissile material stockpiles and production capability and to shut down or modify proliferation-sensitive facilities like the Arak heavy water reactor and the Fordow enrichment plant.  Such limits on Iran's nuclear program would need to be combined with intrusive inspections.

There was a difference of opinion among the panelists as to Iran's willingness to accept such restrictions and the relative urgency for Iran of winning sanctions relief.  President Rouhani promised to improve the economic situation in Iran during his campaign and most panelists found this to be an important and time-sensitive objective for the new President.  These panelists found that Iran may be willing to hold its program someplace short of producing nuclear weapons.  They viewed Iran's attitude toward nuclear weapons as more nuanced than that of Pakistan or North Korea, where nuclear weapons acquisition was a driving force.

One panelist disagreed with this conclusion, arguing that Iran would be unlikely to bargain away a sufficient amount of its fissile material stockpile and nuclear infrastructure.  This panelist reasoned that nothing, including the Syria episode, has shifted Iran's strategic calculations with regard to the value of nuclear weapons.  Nothing that is offered to Iran in a deal, including sanctions relief, would trump the value of obtaining such weapons, or the ability to make them quickly.

The panelists agreed that, as with Syria, there is a political cost to striking a deal with Iran, which is that the other party becomes essential to the deal's success.  The chemical weapon disarmament deal with Syria requires the Assad regime to declare its stockpiles and arrange access to chemical weapon sites.  This makes the regime essential to inspectors.  Assad's government has thus been legitimized through its indispensable cooperation.  This outcome conflicts with statements by U.S. officials at the United Nations, who continue to call for Assad's removal.

The same would be true with Iran.  Any comprehensive nuclear accord will require cooperation from Iran’s Supreme Leader, its military, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  The United States would then be invested in preserving parts of this governing structure in order to ensure that the deal is not aborted.  As with Syria, this may run counter to broader U.S. efforts to combat terrorism, promote democracy and defend human rights.