By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst
As difficult as determining an appropriate international response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons has been for Western nations over the past month, the level of complexity only increases when judging the potential impact on Iran and its burgeoning nuclear program. The precedent set by the Obama administration in dealing with Syria could set the stage for not only future U.S.-Iran relations but international WMD proliferation strategies.
The issue of credibility is considered to be among the main issues at stake for the major players in this conflict – not only the strategic credibility of the U.S., but that of the UN Security Council, Russian influence in the region, and even constraints on chemical weapon usage. Although the risks to the main players in Syria have been highlighted, another large player – Iran – has been largely overlooked in the crisis. Iran has a critical stake in Syria, and in many respects it is Iran rather than the U.S. that could lose the most.
Iran, a Shi’ite majority nation, has a vested interest in backing the Assad government, a Shi’ite minority government in a Sunni majority nation. Iran has supplied money, arms and even operatives which have become key parts of the armed conflict raging within Syria. If Assad were to regain control and defeat the rebel forces, this would be a direct vindication of Iranian influence in the Middle East – such a development would likely be perceived as a threat by surrounding Sunni Arab states. Iran’s current backing of Assad’s regime has already prompted hostility from Sunni nations. The implications of this scenario extend to the involvement of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite based organization that is also heavily involved in fighting Syrian rebel forces. Former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell described the Syria crisis as being comprised of four smaller wars – the Syrian people versus Assad’s government, Islamic militants against secular government, Sunnis versus Shi’tes, and finally a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence.
U.S. airstrikes against Syria could upset any future talks or compromises regarding not only the Iranian nuclear program, but future cooperation and talks as well. Even the optimistic possibilities for negotiations provided by the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would be limited if the situation in Syria were to escalate – even if he opposes military conflict with the U.S., Rouhani does not control the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Military losses for the IRGC (a likely scenario given the extent of military support that has been provided so far) could trigger a conflict escalation. An alleged report states that the IRGC instructed militia proxies in Iraq to attack U.S. interests should the U.S. strike Syrian targets. Such retaliation will likely not occur in the conventional sense, but instead through asymmetrical means such as a cyber attack (originating from Tehran) or terrorist bombings.
A rebel victory would come with its own host of potential problems – one of the most prominent being the number of extremist groups (some of which are aligned with Al Qaeda) fighting in the rebel forces. In the event of victory, they will seek to influence the creation of a government hostile to the U.S. and possibly Iran as well, as the Sunni majority would take control of the new government and retain hostility over Iran’s backing of Assad’s forces. While international conflict escalation remains a key concern, Iran must deal with growing internal divisions regarding the conflict. The populace is well aware that funding military operations in Syria comes with a high price tag, taking away valuable funds from a population dealing with multiple economic sanctions. According to Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Syria “has become Iran’s Vietnam: a quagmire from which it has no apparent escape.”
Iran’s Syria predicament presents the U.S. with an advantage – diplomatic leverage. With the possibility of negotiations between the Syrian government and rebel forces in the future, Iran would want to be involved in any talks or settlements dealing with Syria. Iran has a clear interest in participating in the proposed UN-backed Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference on Syria.
Inclusion in the conference would be critical to Iran’s desire to establish itself as a major power in the region and have a say in the outcome of the Syria conflict, which it clearly wants. This arrangement could work in the interest of the U.S. – Iran possesses its own leverage over Assad at this point in time and this move could set the stage for future U.S.-Iran talks. While talks with Syrian government and opposition forces may not come to fruition, the U.S. does possess the ability to allow Iranian participation and possibly ease the path to future cooperation.
It would be to the U.S.’ advantage to extend a diplomatic hand to Iran on the issue of Syria now, even if talks do not materialize in the near future, in order to help set a precedent for diplomatic relations on the issue of WMD proliferation. It is also in Iran’s interest to prevent a conflict escalation and further resource spending on Syria. While it would be inaccurate to say the U.S. and Iran have a mutual interest in the outcome of the Syria conflict, the two countries clearly have coordinating interests in maintaining the stability of the region.