Signals to Tehran

The situation in Syria doesn’t only matter to the Western world. It is being followed just as intensely by Iran: how the U.S. struggles and Russia seizes the opportunity for initiative. Tehran will draw its conclusions from that — primarily in regard to the upcoming negotiations about the country’s controversial nuclear program.

The Geneva accord between Russia and the U.S. concerns the chemical weapons of the Assad regime in Syria. The document as well as the three-week long phase of development will be studied at least as intensively in Tehran as in Damascus. Doubtlessly, the diplomats of the Islamic Republic have registered how the U.S. struggled, how Russia seized the opportunity for initiative. They will draw their conclusions about what this all could mean for the upcoming negotiations with the world powers about their country’s controversial nuclear program. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has already quickly explained that the deal that he worked out with his Russian colleague, Sergei Lavrov, also sets the standard for Iran and North Korea.

The temptation may be great, yet the government in Tehran would be making a grave mistake if they interpreted Obama’s zigzag course on the question of Syrian chemical weapons as a sign of weakness. The U.S. President has made clear that the national interests of America are at best only indirectly affected by the slaughtering by poison in Damascus. Any attempt of Iran to actually build nuclear weapons would be a different issue due to the strategic implications for the region — that would certainly set into motion the opposite domestic dynamic in Washington from the present case in Syria.

It has also not escaped Tehran that Moscow didn’t become active until after the U.S. shifted mid-range missile cruisers to the Mediterranean. For Vladimir Putin, it was primarily a matter of avoiding a military intervention that would possibly have decisively weakened Bashar al-Assad, not a matter of peace and international law. The price for Assad is high if he complies with the treaty: He will lose his deterrence potential against Israel. The work of a protective power could have been imagined differently in Iran, where one sees the Syrian civil war as a conspiracy of the West to weaken the “front of resistance” against Israel.

A Bridge for Nuclear Talks?

Beyond this ideological rhetoric that the new president, Hassan Rouhani, also makes use of, the poisonous gas treaty could build a bridge for nuclear talks: Iran always wanted to also talk about regional security in this context. In view of a possible Syrian peace conference in Geneva, Rouhani could play a constructive role; by contrast, a military strike would have taken away any maneuvering room, in Syria as well as in the nuclear dispute.

Iran’s new president has let it be known that Tehran would even be prepared to accept leadership in Damascus without Assad. The condition for that would be that the U.S. not fundamentally alter the balance in the region. The poisonous gas deal at least leads one to imagine that Washington can ultimately reconcile itself to the status quo. That might be the most important signal for Iran — the suspicion is deep-seated in Tehran that for America, it is really a matter of a change of regime.

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