The Debate

What Iran Really Learned from the Syrian Crisis

Congressional opposition to the US-Russian deal on Syria underscores the scale of Obama’s challenge on Iran.

Zachary Keck
What Iran Really Learned from the Syrian Crisis
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Much has been written about how Iran would perceive the United States’ handling of the Syria crisis. Most of the commentary has argued that U.S. President Barack Obama must demonstrate resolve against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to convince the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran that he is serious about using military force against Tehran’s nuclear program. As Robert Farley and others have noted, this argument rests on faulty ground.

Instead, the more likely lesson Iranian leaders will take from the Syria incident is just how much difficulty President Obama will have convincing Congress to go along with any prospective deal with Iran. This will inevitably weaken the administration’s ability to conclude a deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

Earlier this week, Harry Kazianis pointed out on Flashpoints that few in U.S. policy circles were happy about the U.S.-Russian deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. John Stewart marveled at the fact that even those who opposed U.S. airstrikes against Syria are bitter about the agreement. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius probably put it best when he wrote:

“What's puzzling about this latest Obama-phobia is that recent developments in Syria have generally been positive from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Obama has accomplished goals that most Americans endorse, given the unpalatable menu of choices.”

Among those who greeted news of the U.S.-Russian deal unhappily were members of Congress. For example, Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said of the deal, “This is a Russian plan for Russian interests. And we should be very, very concerned about” it. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) was even blunter, calling the deal a “debacle.”

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Although the Syria deal could be signed without consulting Congress, any deal with Iran over its nuclear program will almost certainly require the U.S. Congress approving the removal of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and financial markets.  

This doesn’t bode well for Iran, to say the least. Keep in mind that, despite their suspicions about dealing with Russia, members of Congress in general strongly opposed military action against Syria. Thus, they had every incentive to support the deal.

The same cannot be said for Iran. Indeed, in a Congress that “has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day [it] is,” as Leon Panetta so eloquently put it, pushing the U.S. into war with Iran has been a rare source of consensus. For instance, despite the election of Hassan Rouhani in June, as well as the opposition from the Obama administration, in July the House passed a bill to ramp up sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400-20. In contrast, a bill to provide free health care to first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks had three times as many votes against it despite the fact that 168 members of the House didn’t even participate in that quorum.

The Senate, if anything, is even more unanimous in its opposition to Iran. In May the Senate passed a resolution calling for harsher Iran sanctions by a margin of 99-0. More strikingly, that resolution, although not binding, called for the U.S. to all but surrender its sovereign right to declare war to Israeli policymakers by declaring, “If Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program, the U.S. government should provide Israel with diplomatic, military and economic support.”

Furthermore, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was lobbying Congress hard to authorize military action against Syria, the organization is far more likely to be lobbying Congress against sanctions relief for Iran. And if members of Congress are highly suspicious of Russian President Vladimir Putin, they flat out despise Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran more generally.  

Make no mistake; Iranian leaders are paying close attention to the domestic dynamics of U.S. policymaking. Since Obama first took office in January 2009, Iranian leaders questioned whether the president had the ability to deliver domestically on a deal with Iran. For example, in response to Obama’s Nowruz greeting in March 2009, Khamenei acknowledged Obama’s stated desire to change the U.S.-Iranian relationship and then said: “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for America, the president, the congress, behind the scene elements?” Later in the speech, he returned to this point, “I advise the American officials, whoever is the decision maker in America, whether the president, the congress or others.” Then, last year, Iranian officials reportedly wanted to defer negotiations until after the U.S. presidential election because they did not believe that a diplomatic deal would be honored by Obama’s successor if the president lost reelection.

As a real opportunity for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement seems to be opening up, Iranian leaders cannot be confident on Obama’s ability to deliver on the sanctions relief that will be necessary for any agreement to be reached. Indeed, Obama has demonstrated almost zero ability to deliver Congress on much of anything since winning reelection. There was near unanimous agreement in Washington that U.S. credibility was on the line with the military strikes against Syria. Yet, as noted above, the bill for Congressional authorization for military action was headed toward defeat before John Kerry accidentally fell into diplomacy. Just the same, if Congressional approval was required on the U.S.-Russian deal it would also likely be doomed.

One potential source of optimism for Iran and the Obama administration is that the war-weary American public would likely support the deal, given the potential alternative of the U.S. having to attack a country that is roughly the size of Western Europe. Yet, President Obama has struggled immensely to sell his policies to the American public, and failed to leverage public support for policies in his dealings with Congress. Indeed, following the Newton tragedy 90 percent of Americans supported universal background checks on firearm purchases. This support was not enough for President Obama to get any legislation passed.

Thus, as Hassan Rouhani and the Iranian leadership continue to indicate their strong interest in a deal, the Obama administration must find a way to demonstrate that it will be able to deliver on the U.S. end. Failing this, the Iranian leadership has little incentive to put their reputations on the line in seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.