President-Elect Stirs Optimism in the West But Talks With Iran Will Likely Be Influenced By the Syrian War

In a July 27, 2013 article in the New York Times, entitled “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in Iran and West,” incoming Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is portrayed as a Iranian leader with which the West can talk, and get a compromise from on the Iranian nuclear issue.  Comments Rouhani has made since his July 15th election victory, and a message brought to the US in July by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki explaining that Rouhani wanted to start direct talks, were proffered in the article to sustain the idea of Rouhani being open to compromise.  Perspectives on Rouhani’s thinking were also gathered from his current and former associates who spoke to the New York Times in anonymity, admittedly defying Rouhani’s request that no one to speak in his name.  In their interviews they claimed Rouhani was “Long known as fiercely intelligent” and known for his “ability to navigate a system dominated by ideologues, building consensus among many opposing forces.”  The July 27th article also referred to associates’ discussion of Rouhani as “a deal maker who has had a direct hand in most of Iran’s major foreign policy decisions over the past three decades.”

Yet, deeper into the article–the eighteenth paragraph, the hopefulness expressed over Rouhani’s “potential” for the West, was tempered by comments from the same anonymous current and former associates, cautioning the West about being overly optimistic.  Some associates reportedly explained Rouhani “was above all, a Shiite Muslim cleric who has dedicated his life to the Islamic Revolution, which he will never betray.”  One explained that “Our opponents are wrong to expect compromises from Rouhani; the sanctions and other pressures will not make us change our stances.”  That associate went on to state, “Rouhani is interested in a dialogue, not a monologue, with the West. He is prepared to reach common ground, but only if the other side is ready to reach common ground.”

As the July 27th New York Times article is outlined, one can accept Rouhani either as a deal maker, allowing the West to achieve its goals concerning Iran and ending the sanctions thwarting economic development in Iran, or a fierce nationalist, who will not cave in to Western demands.  For those optimists who would choose the former outlook, perhaps they would also need to consider the impact the urgent issue of Syria might have on any nuclear negotiations with Iran.  Interestingly, Western analysts discussing future nuclear negotiations and Rouhani, rarely apply the situation in Syria in their publicized analyses.  (This “avoidance behavior” in their writings is very similar to that seen in publicized analyses made on Syria, which until recently, more often excluded an examination of the role of Russia or Iran.  It was a source of amusement in Moscow.)  Perhaps analysts have chosen not to discuss Syria given its complexities and given so many had wrongly projected its outcome for the past two years.  However, Syria is an issue that should be examined in the context of how Iran has developed as an actor on the global stage, now being able to successfully project force, on its own, long distances from home, and how the situation in Syria may influence any negotiations with Iran.  It is uncertain how US would be able to find compromise with Iran on Syria.

Syria Has Not Been a Success for the US, Especially with Regard to Iran

Initially, US officials engaged in Syria with the goal to tip the balance in favor of the Syrian opposition on the battlefield and drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table.  Displeased by Iran’s presence on the ground in Syria, the goal was also established to roll back Iranian forces and the forces of Iran’s Lebanese partner, Hezbollah, that have helped turned the tables in favor of Assad.  The US also hoped that by supporting the downfall of Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran would lose its main ally in the Middle East, lose a vital link to its partner, Hezbollah, and stand isolated in the region.  Once isolated, it was hoped Iran would become even more vulnerable to US and international pressure to limit its nuclear program.  However, as Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 2013, “If there was once a realistic hope that Syria’s civil war would isolate Iran, the prospect has dimmed.”  Through its success, Iran instead has increased its standing as a player in the Middle East and has created the impression that it has successfully reduced the ability of the US to influence events in Syria.  Of course, Russia, the Assad regime’s main ally, has promoted Iran’s success in Syria.

By all accounts, the US enterprise in Syria to date has been a failure.  According to a July 2013 NATO assessment of the situation in Syria, completed in consultation with US and EU intelligence services, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  The report predicted that Assad’s forces, with Russian and Iranian support, would capture major Free Syrian Army strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO concluded that the military campaign of the Free Syria Army–a loose umbrella organization of nearly 1200 groups and fighting force of Supreme Military Council, the military-wing of the Syrian opposition–had failed over the past three months.  Mainstream Free Syrian Army groups were not getting stronger or achieving much.  Officials said that the Syrian component of the Free Syrian Army had deteriorated dramatically since April and the point had been reached where it was difficult to distinguish who was determined to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  Moreover, NATO assessed that Syrians, including those in Islamic militant factions, were no longer doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  Rather, the majority of fighting was being borne by foreign fighters, most of them, Salafist/Jahiddis, affiliated with Al-Qaida.  The US intelligence community has indicated that Islamic militant elements, left unchecked in Syria, will continue the trend of the past two years of growing in size, capability and effectiveness. 

To make matters worse for the US, it has been alleged that with the assistance of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and its Quds Force, the Assad regime has reached an agreement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).  Assad regime and its allies managed to exploit a rift between the foreign fighter laden, Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shan (Syria) and the mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, Jabhat Al-Nusra.  The Syrians of Al-Nusra have been angered by the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced independent plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  The Syrian opposition says evidence of the agreement is that Assad’s forces have concentrated their military operations against secular Free Syrian Army units, and more recently has avoided contact with units of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).

The Impact of Syria on Iranian Thinking

Iran’s successful rejuvenation of Assad’s forces, reversal of the situation on the ground in Syria, and rescue of Assad’s presidency, has ostensibly had a very uplifting effect upon Iran’s military and security forces, as well as conservative political leaders in Tehran.  The Syria operation has demonstrated to Iran that it can overcome the superiority of Western powers on an issue important to both the Western and Iranian interests.  Additionally, Iran has shown that it understands how to maneuver against the West.  The key lies in the quality of its thinking.  While decision makers may delay or stall on issues, due to domestic political issues in the US or EU (i.e., 2012 US Presidential and Congressional elections or political infighting on an issue within the Congress or between the White House and the Congress.), Iran will seize that opportunity to make gains, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or on the nuclear issue.  In US football terms, Iran seeks to get into the open field where it can run.  The Iranians have learned to ensure that the steps they take, particularly with regard to operations outside of their borders, are sustainable.  They will consider in advance how secure their efforts against eventual attempts by opponents to defeat or disrupt them. 

For Iran, every moment of time is viewed in itself as an opportunity to shape a situation.  Recently, political leaders and policymakers in the US, too often have made the assumption that decisions and action on foreign policy can be delayed and later responded to with money or the application of military force.  That is no longer a feasible.  To that extent, Iran’s success in part has been the result of a decline in the quality of US foreign policy making and decision making during the first term of the Obama administration.

Success in Syria may have also convinced Iran’s leaders that continued maneuvering against the West is a viable approach on the nuclear issue, despite sanctions and threats of military action.  Consider that regardless of the state of negotiations between Iran and the West over the years, Iran has continued to make progress on its nuclear program.  Iran very likely believes that once it successfully acquires the nuclear energy capability it seeks, the genie will essentially be out of the bottle, and a new situation will exist.  It is somewhat likely that Iran may have calculated that at that point, further sanctions or threats of action against Iran, over its nuclear ebergy program, except among some of its neighbors, would unlikely be viewed as constructive or acceptable internationally.

During the Bosnian War, 1992-1995, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other Iranian security elements such as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and Quds Force operated successfully on the ground.  They integrated their operations with those of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Iran demonstrated its ability to project force away from its territory in support of its interests and work in concert with allies to airlift arms supplies to its allies.  As it was explained in a July 3, 2013 post entitled, “The President-elect of Iran Says He Will Engage the West, But Don’t Think He Will Give in to It,” the Bosnia experience very likely served to guide the Iran’s initial approach on Syria.  Yet, given the achievements of those same Iranian military and security organizations in Syria, the operation now stands alone as a success.  While the US and its allies debated and hesitated on Syria from 2011 to 2013, Iran, along with Russia and Hezbollah, provided both arms and nonlethal support of significant quality and quantity to the Assad regime.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ministry of Intelligence and Security and Quds Force personnel also went into Syria in large numbers.  Iran became an important factor in Syria, giving the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad the power to regain and retain control over the situation on the ground and change the course Syrian civil war in his regime’s favor.  Iran now appears ready to do whatever necessary to sustain its success in Syria.

A Compromise Might Be Reached on Syria, But Time Is Running Short

Zbigniew Brzezinski, on July 23, 2013, wrote on Twitter, “A compromise with Iran could help resolve the Syria mess—and resolving the Syria mess could make accommodation with Iran easier.”   This is absolutely the case.  However, if Syria is to become part of the dialogue, it will be tough to find what form that compromise will take.  Unlike previous years, when the West would have the upper hand in negotiations, pushing a diplomatic solution by using a credible threat to use force against Iran.  Iran’s position in Syria is strong enough to allow Iranian negotiators to use it as a card to seek compromise from the West.  It is also quite clear that given planned extraordinary force cuts in Western armed forces, there is little taste for more war.

Syria has provided Iran with the opportunity to project the image of a steadfast ally that will not bend to international pressure.  Compromising on Syria, even to achieve a very favorable outcome in negotiations on the nuclear issue, would be a difficult decision for Iran.  Time is also running out for finding a solution on Syria.  It is not to the benefit of the US to wait any further to discuss Syria with Iran,.  The time is approaching when for Assad, remaining in power will become a fait accompli.  At that point, for Iran, doing anything to interfere with Assad’s power would mean initiating a new situation against its ally.  That is very unlikely.

In the July 3, 2013 post entitled, “The President-elect of Iran Says He Will Engage the West, But Don’t Think He Will Give in to It”  insights were similar to those provided afterward in the July 27th New York Times article.  The July 3rd post explained, “Rouhani, and his advisers, will not take office with a mind to acquiesce to the wishes of foreign powers. He and his colleagues view themselves first and foremost as Iranian patriots.  That post further explained that Rouhani is astute enough to know he must engage with the West on a variety of issues in a pragmatic way, but he undoubtedly recognizes the dangers in doing so.  Looking at world from Tehran, the post explained Rouhani would unlikely think that the US would ever try to do much good for an opponent.  It would therefore be unlikely that the US would be willing to do much for Iran.  That July 3rd assessment by was supported by the July 27th New York Times article which interpreted Rouhani as stating in one of his books on foreign policy that the US and the Islamic republic are in permanent conflict.  The article also went on to quote Rouhani from that same book as stating, “We [Iran] need to keep a good relation with the people; only with them we can continue to resist and confront the U.S.A.”


A peace process needs a foundation of mutual trust upon which it can be constructed.  In spite of the many platitudes written and spoken of Rouhani in the West, there is no real trust between Washington and Tehran at the moment.  Rouhani’s desire to establish a dialogue with Washington is undoubtedly authentic, but unless it responded to seriously, he will continue to energetically support the Assad regime militarily and otherwise, and moreover, push toward activating fully operational nuclear reactors, and develop all that may come along with that.  He needs to be convinced that the US means his country and its leadership no harm.

President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, have not been very restrained in what they have said about Iran’s role in Syria.  However, in a February 20, 2013, speech made at the University of Virginia, Kerry stated “One of America’s most incredible realities continues to be that we are a country without any permanent enemies.”  Rouhani and his newly formed foreign policy team will hopefully heed the secretary’s statement.  With any luck, they will not view it as a rebuff of Rouhani’s belief that the US and Iran are in permanent conflict, but as an expression of Kerry’s concept and intent for diplomacy under his leadership in the Obama administration.  The Obama administration has indicated, as the July 27th New York Times article expressed, “a willingness to engage in head-to-head dialogue after years of inclusive multiparty negotiations.”   Some small steps should soon be seen coming from both directions.  Confidence building measures must be developed.  However, what would most likely have a great impact on any talks, would be the direct involvement of both President Obama and President Rouhani in the process.

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