From Iran to Syria, Obama's Toughness Is Paying Off
There is one main reason why Iran is making conciliatory noises about its relationship with the U.S. and about the future of its nuclear program, and there is one main reason why Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, is signaling his intention to give up his stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The reason: President Barack Obama's toughness.
Yes, I know. Toughness isn’t a quality lately ascribed to the president. But hear me out.
Obama has crippled the Iranian economy by organizing some of the harshest sanctions imaginable, and he has stated repeatedly that he won't allow the Iranian leadership to acquire a nuclear weapon. The constant displays of American military might in the waters off of Iran these past four years, coupled with clear statements that the U.S. would use force to thwart the regime's plans, have also impressed Iranian leaders.
Many Americans doubt Obama's willingness to use force against Iran, and many of Iran's Middle Eastern foes do, too. But the Iranian leadership, which wants to have a nuclear capability despite its fantastical protestations to the contrary, is beginning to understand the price it is paying for its atomic desires.
On Syria, Obama's record is disturbing in many ways. He indicated that he would attack the regime as punishment for crossing the "red line" he drew on the use of chemical weapons, but he flinched when the moment came to launch a strike. He has at times seemed disorganized and hesitant, and his critics -- including me -- saw him as vacillating.
Yet Assad, and his Russian sponsor, Vladimir Putin, both weighed the situation and came to the conclusion that the U.S. meant what it said. It is for this reason -- and this reason alone -- that Putin and Assad have agreed in principle to arrange for the removal of chemical weapons. Without Obama's threat, the Assad regime would still be free to gas its people.
I don't like the administration's Syria policy -- I wish it would work harder to remove the men who use chemical weapons, not just the weapons themselves, and I have almost no hope that the Putin-led plan will work -- but Obama has managed, by threatening force, to buttress the international taboo on the use of poison gas. Again, this is a provisional and morally ambiguous victory, and it could easily come undone. But it was only Obama who forced what looks like modest progress on one core issue of the conflict.
On Iran, all the usual caveats apply. The charm offensive recently undertaken by President Hassan Rohani is nothing more than public relations until proven otherwise. It's certainly pleasant to have an Iranian president who doesn't appear to be a lunatic, but there is also reason to fear Rohani: He's a skilled negotiator who undoubtedly understands the utility of conciliatory words and an amenable demeanor. His assertion that Iran isn't interested in nuclear weapons is belied by the fact that Iran has put in place a massive apparatus to make nuclear weapons.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been Obama's indispensable partner (not that either man would necessarily frame their relationship this way) in making Iran understand the price it would pay for pursuing nuclear weapons, is even more wary about Rohani's public-relations campaign. As Netanyahu's office said in a statement this week, "One must not be fooled by the Iranian president's fraudulent words. The Iranians are spinning in the media so that the centrifuges can keep on spinning."
Netanyahu's role is to play bad cop to what I hope will be Obama's ambivalent cop. One of the dangers of the coming weeks is that the White House will become so excited by the prospect of a resolution to the nuclear issue that it ends up making a bad deal, one that allows Iran to retain at least some capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Or Iran's negotiators might find themselves unpleasantly surprised by the extent of the Obama administration's demands, and ultimately balk.
But Rohani's mandate is to get the sanctions lifted. Sanctions are affecting average Iranians in ways the regime didn't fully expect. It is in the interest even of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to make these sanctions go away.
Rohani, assuming he's sincere, doesn't have much time. The hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard Corps are lying in wait. It would be premature for the U.S. to lift sanctions now, before anything substantive has happened. But it would also be a mistake to be too rigid.
"The objective of sanctions has been to subject Iran to enough pressure to compel them to make meaningful nuclear compromises," Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. "If they're prepared to do that, the U.S. has to be prepared to ease sanctions."
That strikes me as correct. On Syria, no flexibility at all is required: Assad has made a promise and he should be held to that promise, as John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, said yesterday in straightforward terms. Syria is making absurd claims about its innocence; these shouldn't be tolerated, particularly if the regime's obstreperousness on this issue becomes more than rhetorical.
The only constant in the Middle East is sudden and revolutionary change. Last week, Obama looked as if he had lost the plot. This week, he has created for himself a potentially historic opening. When he visits the United Nations next week, he might very well find himself shaking hands with the president of Iran. It is no small thing for an Iranian president to shake hands with the leader of the Great Satan. But Obama, by placing unbearable pressure on Iran, may have given Rohani no choice.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)