Iran is carefully watching the divisive US debate on whether to launch military strikes against its chief ally, Syria, but the Obama administration may be at risk of sending Tehran the wrong message, analysts warn.
In days of passionate testimony, US Secretary of State John Kerry said America and the world must send a warning to Iran and others that they will not turn a blind eye to the use of non-conventional arms amid accusations the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his people.
“Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry told lawmakers as he urged backing for punitive US strikes against Syria. “Our inaction would surely give them (Iran) a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test.”
Western nations accuse Tehran of seeking to develop a nuclear bomb under the guise of a push for civilian nuclear energy — something which the Iranian leadership has long denied.
The Syria crisis has now become the most immediate foreign policy challenge for new moderate conservative President Hassan Rowhani, who began his four-year term last month amid hopes he may usher in a more constructive approach to the dragging nuclear talks.
Rowhani has said his country will do “everything to prevent” an attack on the Syrian regime, according to Iranian media reports. While supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Washington and its allies were using “the chemical weapon (allegation) as a pretext” to attack Syria.
But analysts say such statements reflect Tehran’s long-held view that it and its allies are victims of a Western conspiracy, and mask the current fierce debate within elite circles about what to do about Syria and Assad.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Suzanne Maloney, who recalled that many Iranians are deeply scarred by their experiences with chemical weapons unleashed in the 1980s by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, said Iran remains “deeply suspicious of America.”
Yet there is a recognition “that Bashar is not the ally he once was … because of the deterioration of the country, because of his undeniable brutality towards his own people,” she said.
Since Rowhani’s election there is a sense of a “new opportunity” for Iran to emerge from its international isolation and they don’t “want to go down with the Syria ship,” she told AFP.
An American strike on Syria might fail though to underline the message that the US administration wants to convey — that President Barack Obama is serious about halting the proliferation of nuclear and chemical arms.
“If the outcome is insignificant to the course of the conflict in Syria I really don’t think it’s a very strong message,” argued Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, saying that inaction or merely a symbolic action risked being seen as “essentially empty threats.”
“You can watch the debate that’s taking place now between Capitol Hill and the White House and it’s not conveying the impression of a kind of strong stomach or eagerness to intervene in disputes in the Middle East.”
Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed saying any US military strikes were unlikely to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
“Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability in a very deliberate fashion. Whether President Obama bombs Syria or doesn’t bomb Syria, I don’t see Iran really altering this course,” he told AFP in an email.
As for Iranian ties to Syria, “for Iran’s leadership Assad may be a bastard, but he’s Iran’s bastard. If they lose him, they will have lost their only reliable ally in the world,” Sadjadpour summed up.
Strategically, Syria remains vital to Iran as it channels aid through the country to Hezbollah and Hamas militants. “The prospect of a US strike has some pretty significant implications for Iran. It first and foremost threatens Iran’s hold on and access to Syria which would be a strategic blow to the Iranians,” Singh told AFP.
Rowhani this month marks his debut on the world stage when he is expected to attend the UN general assembly in New York, with all eyes on him to see what tone he will strike after the fiery rhetoric of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It’s questionable though how much sway he has as Iran’s Syria policy traditionally lies in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard which reports to supreme leader Khamenei, who also holds the reins of the nuclear dossier.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt suggested the Syrian crisis could be an opportunity for the US to more actively engage with Iran, by perhaps agreeing it could participate in planned Geneva peace talks.
“Iran would satisfy its long-standing desire to be recognized as a regional stakeholder (which it is, no matter how much the United States tries to pretend otherwise),” Walt argued.
“America would be giving Iran the chance to play a constructive role” much as it did in Afghanistan in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban and it would “be a way of rewarding the moderate stance” of Rowhani, he added.