Rush to Syrian War: What About US Relations With Iran and Russia?

Today’s New York Times opens its article on the effects a US attack on Syria would have on the efforts by the US to halt Iran’s development of nuclear technology by framing the question from the militaristic point of view that we must be “strong”:

As the Obama administration makes a case for punitive airstrikes on the Syrian government, its strongest card in the view of some supporters of a military response may be the need to send a message to another country: Iran. If the United States does not enforce its self-imposed “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, this thinking goes, Iran will smell weakness and press ahead more boldly in its quest for nuclear weapons.

And it is this need for the US to be tough (and for Obama to prove that he has a big d) that seems to be dominating virtually all of the media coverage of the push to get Congressional authorization for a strike. At least the Times does realize there is a very important flip side to that position, though, and that we may now be on the brink of more substantial talks with Iran than we have had in a long time. Here are the next few paragraphs:

But that message may be clashing with a simultaneous effort by American officials to explore dialogue with Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, in the latest expression of Washington’s long struggle to balance toughness with diplomacy in its relations with a longtime adversary.

Two recent diplomatic ventures have raised speculation about a possible back channel between Washington and Tehran. Last week, Jeffrey Feltman, a high State Department official in President Obama’s first term who is now a senior envoy at the United Nations, visited Iran to meet with the new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and discussed possible reactions to an American airstrike in Syria.

At the same time, the sultan of Oman, who has often served as an intermediary between the United States and Iran, was in Tehran meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It is not lost on Iran that the AUMF for action in Syria is written broadly enough that US military action could spill over into Iran. A Fars News article dated yesterday cites the Jack Goldsmith analysis of the draft AUMF that foresees US action in Iran:

Goldsmith asked whether the proposed AUMF authorizes the President to use force against Iran or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in Iran or Lebanon? Again, yes, if the President accuses Iran or Hezbollah of having a (mere) connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and the use of force against Iran or Hezbollah would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the US or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons. Again, it is very easy to imagine.

The article continues, noting (as Marcy has many times) how the 9/11 AUMF has been interpreted broadly:

It brings to mind the AUMF passed in the aftermath of September 11. While that resolution directly concerned Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it was later broadened to justify drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia–even on targets that were clearly not part of Al-Qaeda.

I find it truly remarkable and somewhat surprising that even in the midst of a domestic economy that the US has ruined through its sanctions and with new threats looming that could turn into direct US military action within Iran, there are still back channel efforts that show avenues of discussion being maintained. And yet those who lust after an attack on Syria seem ready to shut off those communications which almost certainly would come to an immediate end once the first cruise missile heads into Damascus.

But it’s not just the crucial opportunity for negotiations with Iran that will be lost when the US launches its attack. Russia also is closely allied with Syria. Of course, with many questions still unanswered on the Boston Marathon bombing and with Edward Snowden having asylum in Russia, the US has very important reasons for maintaining an open and healthy dialog with Russia.

Especially now as the report directly implicating Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan supplying sarin to rebel factions in Syria to carry out the deadly attack gathers more attention, the US needs to be more forthcoming in its sharing of its intelligence that points toward the Assad regime as carrying out the attack. And so far, Russia is not pleased with US behavior on that front:

“What we were shown before and recently by our American partners, as well as by the British and French, does not convince us at all,” Mr. Lavrov said on Monday. “There are no facts, there is simply talk about ‘what we definitely know.’ But when you ask for more detailed evidence, they say that it is all classified, therefore it cannot be shown to us. This means there are not such facts to encourage international cooperation.”

Mr. Lavrov also took a direct jab at Mr. Kerry. “It is very strange to hear, when we recently discussed the issue, my good colleague, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, say that the American side had produced irrefutable evidence for Russia of the Assad regime using chemical weapons, and then claiming that Russians deliberately refused to recognize the fact.”

Lavrov has a dire prediction for the consequences of a US attack carried out without the consent of the UN Security Council:

“If someone tries to make gross violations of international law a norm, then we will create chaos,” Mr. Lavrov warned. “We will create a situation where the U.N. Charter and the principles under which all the nations of the world have signed up, including the principle of unanimous agreement of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the so-called right of veto, which the United States insisted on — then all of these principles will simply collapse.”

Perhaps Obama should keep the size of his d a classified secret and instead share the “convincing” evidence that the Assad regime carried out the attack. Who knows, if there is real evidence that is convincing, perhaps Russia and Iran could find a peaceful way for the Assad regime to give way to rapid elections. In case you think that is a far-fetched idea, note that Lavrov directly tied the sharing of “facts” to the ability of those facts to “encourage international cooperation”. The alternative is a regional war that leaves the US increasingly isolated and viewed as preferring missiles over diplomacy.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
15 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    The NYT–at the same time as it hid its earlier reporting that AIPAC is lobbying hard for war with Syria–is actually just stating the mirror image of the truth on Iran. It’s not that we have to prove our credibility with Iran. We need to prove our credibility with Israel, who, if it doubts we’ll take military action to defend the red lines no matter how dodgy the intelligence supporting that red line, will just start a war with Iran itself.

  2. Jim White says:

    It occurs to me that the cynic would say that Obama decided to seek Congressional authorization because he had seen the figures on how many in the House would vote for impeachment if he acted without authorization.

    The incurable optimist would say he went to Congress to buy more time for these back channel talks to produce results.

    I’m getting more and more cynical in my old age.

  3. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @emptywheel: The Israelis don’t have the balls or the resources to start their own war. That’s what this is all about. If they did they would have already attacked Iran. The Israelis aren’t going to attack anyone that has the means to fight back. They got skunked by Hezbollah in 2006 and twice went into Gaza since then. At none of those times did they actually send troops in to do any real fighting, preferring to bomb and shell from afar. If they didn’t have the cajones to pacify Gaza they sure aren’t going to go after Iran on their own.

    An attack on Iran would be nothing more than another effort to get US troops on the ground in the area and Obama better tell them to forget it.

  4. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @Jim White: Obama went to Congress because he knows there will be retaliation somewhere and if this thing escalates he’s going to need money from Congress to pay for all this crap. He may be able to bomb without authorization like he says but he sure can’t appropriate monies on his own.

    This is going to kill the Democrats in 2014 and 2016. If it escalates the Republicans are going to demand a ransom to vote him more money and we’ll be increasing spending on war while cutting everything at home with none of the cuts being blamed on the Republicans. If this is Obama’s eleventy dimensional chess then he’s a failure at it.

  5. GKJames says:

    There seems to be no evidence, though, that the US has given up on regime change as the heart of policy on Iran. Any back-channel discussion that does take place will have at its core the American insistence that Iran surrender, ab initio, the one thing that Tehran believes will give it security: nuclear capability. A military assault on Syria will, of course, make Iran even more adamant on gaining that capability. In the process, it will give credence to the claims that the last thing the US wants in the region is stability.

    As for Israel and its persistent yapping about willing to go it alone against Iran, if the US were serious about preventing that, it would simply communicate, back-channel, to Jerusalem that any Israeli aircraft headed that way would be interdicted.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @Jim White: I think people are significantly underestimating how the debt ceiling fight would present a good way to defund a Syrian assault. The timing works out perfectly.

    And if he continued w/assault w/o funding authority, then he’d be impeached. So yeah.

  7. JThomason says:

    @emptywheel: Impeachment in the midst of military hostilities may be an iffy proposition especially with the color of authority arising of the Preamble’s protection clause.

    Edit: “Color” not “cloud”.

  8. bevin says:

    There is a suicidal anxiety, an all or nothing attitude about US policies at the moment. Sometimes people lose their nerves not out of of fear but because they have short attention spans.

    It is as if the long deliberate campaign to achieve global hegemony, which can be traced back two centuries, had begun to bore the ruling caste, anxious to return to the fleshpots and vulgar sensuality 24/7, so they have thrown their hands into the air and staked everything on an attack that defines illegality and mendacity.

    If this attack, for which there is not a shred of justification, takes place, everything changes in the world and the US will wake up to see, rising out of the ashes of Damascus, a new challenger, far more powerful than the Soviet Union ever was, with complete control of Mackinder’s earth island.

    Whether this is good or bad is uncertain. The saving grace of US domination was that the country’s rulers had a sense of humour and proportion which reasserted itself after a bout of orgiastic bloodletting. But that, courtesy of AIPAC and neo-con fanaticism, a melange of renegade communism and fascism of the bombastic Mussolini school, has disappeared now. The line of descent from Dean Acheson to John Kerry has been one of sharp decline. One sympton of hubris in national affairs is that key decisions are left in the hands of light minded courtiers, favourites and psychopathic careerists.

    There is no evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons.

    The charge that it has done so is merely an excuse to carry out a long planned attack designed to free Israel from the awkward necessity of making peace by compromising with its neighbours and its indigenous people.

    The United States has no interest in this matter and the world knows it.

    The probability is that this will end with a compromise, brokered by Russia, in which Putin plays the part which Krushchev took when JFK needed to be talked down from war half a century ago.

    It cannot happen a third time. The great danger is that appeasement never satisfies but emboldens the appeased.

  9. Bay State Librul says:


    Hell, the Repubs are ready to impeach Barry now…
    They could impeach him for going golfing after his “putting Congress in the hot seat” decision.

  10. What Constitution? says:

    The NYT slant (and, frankly, Kerry’s slant) is evocative of the heinous but apparently intriguing philosophy attributed to Michael Ledeen, to wit, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” It would be just about the proper timing if we were to use Afghanistan and Iraq as benchmarks — but then there’s Libya and Yemen to mess up the timeline, I guess. Pretty much we’re the baddest-assed hammer on the planet, and we’re thinkin’ we see a nail.

    Obama’s move to put Congress on the line would be great constitutional theater –if he had acknowledged he had to do it, which is being denied. Instead, it becomes a “put up or shut up” domestic photo op in which the subject is a referendum on President Harrison Ford’s speech at the beginning of Air Force One. The problem is that in Air Force One the “military action” taken in response to the rogue government’s atrocities was to send in the Special Ops forces to
    neatly bag the evil dictator in the dead of night, whereas this debate is being framed against bombing which will cause plainly innocent civilian deaths while simultaneously risking the “what could go wrong” consequences of blowing up unstable weapons caches and/or triggering immediate and expansive military responses. Seems materially different, but that’s not important now, right?

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