A President’s Unconvincing Promise

President Obama promised Congress in a letter this week that he would keep up US pressure on Iran if they would vote for his deal.  But he promised Syria he would punish chemical weapon use and failed to do it, and he promised Europe and China he would turn the other cheek if they violate snap-back sanctions.  

Obama’s pledge to the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” proves to be backed up by nothing whatsoever.  Three years after the first use of the chemical weapons by the Syrian government in its civil war, not only is Assad still in power but he is developing new types of chemical weapons to use.

Assad reportedly is developing a new type of chlorine bomb, and earlier this year investigators found trace components of sarin and VX, an extremely toxic manmade chemical nerve agent. This, despite a 2013 deal between the U.S. and Syria to purge Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile — a deal meant to de-escalate the standoff with the West after allegations he crossed Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons.

William Tobey of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes that this failure in Syria will doom the Iran deal.  His commentary is worth reading in full.  The red line was effectively ignored except for a dithering negotiations process that Syria has dragged its feet to implement, except when it has outright defied it.  Like the Iran deal, however, the recognition of Assad’s government as a legitimate negotiating partner has made him indispensable to the process of trying to work through the negotiations.  We have secured his position.

In return, we have gotten nothing — a fact not lost on Assad’s chief supporters in Tehran.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi reports that the first round of the Geneva 2 peace talks failed even to provide for any humanitarian relief, let alone to make progress toward a political settlement. He lamented that, “We haven’t achieved anything.” The Assad government then escalated its attacks against civilians… Even Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledges that U.S. policy on Syria is failing.

More to the point for Tehran, the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons has stalled….  [US] Ambassador Robert Mikulak, blasted the Syrian government, noting that only 4 percent of priority one chemicals had been removed… Syria’s compliance has been belated, incomplete, and grudging. Worse, while the agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons has stalled, it has also effectively halted international efforts to remove Assad.

The obvious lesson for Tehran: Reach an interim agreement that deflates international pressure for action, drag your feet on implementation, and keep your illicit weapons program as the world dithers.

Meanwhile, also as with Iran’s efforts in Iraq, the United States is largely concentrating its efforts on Assad’s enemies and not on his compliance with the weapons deal.  Our efforts in Syria have not been successful due to poor planning and execution by the administration, but they have focused on destabilizing ISIS and not on forcing Assad’s compliance with his agreements on weapons of mass destruction.

The Iranian leadership has not missed the lesson here.  They have every tool to to drag their feet in nuclear inspections thanks to the newly revealed terms of the secret side deal.  Meanwhile, they are tying international actors to themselves in order to make themselves indispensable.  As Europe rushes to invest in the newly opened Iranian economy, Iran offers generous terms that will make investing nations likely to defend the regime.  Rather than warn against this, President Obama has already dispatched letters to European and Asian powers alike promising to protect their companies against any US efforts to re-impose sanctions on Iran.  Meanwhile the administration has urged Congress not to re-authorize American sanctions that would be available to “snap back” in the event of Iranian foot-dragging.

Congress, like the American people and the nations of the world, has no reason to believe that the Obama administration intends to use greater pressure on Iran than it has used on Syria.  In the letters to foreign powers, Congress even has the President’s word that he will forgo some powers available to him.  In the terms of the secret IAEA deals, Congress has evidence that the administration is prepared to accept any fig leaf as a way to avoid confrontation.  There is simply no reason to take seriously the President’s promises in his letter to Congress that he will treat with Iran sternly.  All the evidence points in the other direction.