Skip to main content

Is U.S.-Iranian deal doable?

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 2046 GMT (0446 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron David Miller: Stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon is a priority for Obama
  • Miller: A nuclear Iran would be dangerous and upset regional balance of power
  • He says Obama doesn't want to get involved with Syria partly to avoid complications with Iran
  • Miller: Not getting bogged down with Syria and working out a U.S.-Iranian deal would be wise

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- If you want to know the prime reason President Barack Obama didn't want to bomb Syria and why the Syrian deal on chemical weapons may actually work out, however imperfectly, think one word: Iran.

Sure the limited military option against Syria was always imperfect; it would neither have ended Syria's chemical weapons capacity nor removed its president, Bashar al-Assad. There was almost no public or congressional support for a military strike either. And one of the strategic objectives of the Obama presidency was getting America out of profitless wars, not into new ones.

But motivating the president too was the challenge and opportunity of Iran. And here's why.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

The grand prize and danger

Other than preventing another 9/11, there is no greater foreign policy priority for the Obama administration than stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That danger exceeds the risk and complexity of any other foreign policy challenge.

And the reason is simple. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian issue or the so-called Arab Spring, Iran's quest for bomb or even a nuclear weapons capacity would upset the regional balance of power in a way no other single event could, trigger regional war, and in doing so create severe consequences for global financial and oil markets. In short, no other Middle Eastern regional event carries more serious domestic consequences for the United States, specifically threatening its economic recovery. And along with keeping America safe, that's the other great strategic objective of the Obama presidency Indeed, for a president whose main priority was -- and remains -- the well-being of the middle class, not the Middle East, Iran is a serious problem.

America's credibility

Iranian Pres. pens Op-ed in Wash Post
U.S. relations with Iran changing?

The notion of American credibility is thrown around these days with a kind of reckless abandon that tends to distort and trivialize its real importance. If Obama didn't push back against Israeli settlement activity, pundits said, his credibility would be undermined. If the president didn't act on his red line on the use of Syrian chemical weapons, his credibility would be damaged. And if Obama didn't strike Syria, his credibility would be shattered, the saying went.

All of these contingencies clearly eroded the president's prestige to a degree. Indeed, presidents should mean what they say and say what they mean. And they should try to ensure that the gap between their words and deeds is as small as possible.

But if the pursuit of credibility is handled without clear purpose, and with means that leaves presidential ends in worse shape, what's the purpose of the enterprise?

The pursuit of credibility can sometimes involve risk that makes the result worse than preservation of credibility itself. President Lyndon Johnson's focus on his personal credibility and the nation's in Vietnam was a classic example of courting risk and making an investment that was much too high and costly for an ill-defined notion of credibility. Striking Syria without public and congressional support and with no real strategy except for the purpose of protecting U.S. credibility just wasn't all that compelling. In fact, staying a threat and turning to diplomacy created the possibility of two breakthroughs that a strike could easily have eliminated.

The Iranian nuclear issue, however, represents a far greater threat to U.S. credibility and a far more serious need to protect it. Obama has repeatedly declared that he will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Two of his predecessors made the same claim. So this issue cuts to the core of whether or not in the eyes of its friends, allies and enemies, the U.S. is reliable, competent and able to act through force or diplomacy to protect its own interests.

There are indeed similarities to Syria, but the foreign policy stakes are much higher. With the exception of a failure to stop another 9/11 type attack, is there any single foreign policy challenge that could damage this president more than allowing the Iranians to cross the nuclear threshold? The fact that Israel and the pro-Israeli community figure so centrally in this issue only complicates matters.

Indeed, Israel's own readiness to act unilaterally against Iran's nuclear facilities only highlights Obama's credibility problem. If Israel struck Iran, not only would Obama be accused of forcing Israel's hand by not pursuing tough enough policies toward Iran; but if the Israelis wanted to act and the U.S. president opposed them, he'd be accused of jeopardizing the security of a close ally. It is a no-win situation of galactic seriousness for this president. And as a result, finding a way to prevent Iran from weaponizing remains his highest foreign policy priority in the Middle East.

The Syrian tar baby

I've long believed but lack the empirical evidence to support it, that one of the main reasons that Obama -- wisely and willfully -- wanted to avoid getting involved in the Syrian civil war was the complications it would cause in finding a way out of the Iranian nuclear morass. The conventional wisdom in Washington has long been precisely the opposite -- That Syria offered an opportunity to weaken Iran; that undermining Assad by heavily supporting the opposition with military assistance , even the direct application of American military force, would weaken Teheran by striking at its key Syrian ally -- and Hezbollah too. This was deemed to be the new Great Game -- a smart and savvy move on the Middle East chess board.

The fact that for the past three weeks as the president debated what to do about Syrian chemical weapons capacity, he had also secretly engaged in an exchange of letters with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that offered new flexibility with regard to a deal on the nuclear issue should give us pause as to whether Obama saw the Syrian situation the same way many analysts did. You might even make an argument that hastening al-Assad's demise might actually accelerate Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon as the mullahs felt the western-Sunni arc threatening a Shia Iran.

In fact, Obama may have well argued that hammering Damascus and engaging in a proxy war with the mullahs and likely the Russians too would have a made an Iranian deal harder to accomplish, particularly if a military strike hit Iranian assets in Syria. Indeed the president also presumably realized that he'd need the Russians on board any deal with Iran too and that a gigantic standoff with Putin over Syria wouldn't help.

It's clear that the threat of the U.S. striking Syria motivated Putin and perhaps al-Assad to an engage in a political process on chemical weapons. But how much impact that threat had in Tehran is an open question, particularly against the backdrop of so reluctant a U.S. public and Congress. Is it possible that the president's letter and his willingness to forgo force in Syria in favor of a diplomatic option might have preserved the prospects of deal with the mullahs? Can the prospect of diplomacy -- like the use of force -- work to deter, too? We'll see.

Governing is about choosing. And in seeking to stay out of militarizing the U.S. role in the Syrian civil war Obama has made a choice. He's been attacked for it and is likely to continue to be. Indeed, the U.S.-Russian deal to rid Syria of all chemicals weapons -- an iffy prospect at best -- won't rid Syria of al-Assad. In fact, it might just guarantee that he stays. Indeed, U.S. diplomacy with the mullahs on the nuclear issue -- like its diplomacy with the Russians on chemical weapons -- would tend to reinforce that status quo.

But Obama would accept an imperfect deal on Syrian chemical weapons and al-Assad in place nonetheless. To resolve one of the world's greatest challenges -- how to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon -- without a resort to America's or Israel's using force -- would be the most significant foreign policy achievement of his presidency. He'd earn his Nobel Peace Prize and in the process spare the world a major catastrophe.

It is that and not getting bogged down in Syria that the president wants to leave as a legacy. And next week in New York at the U.N. General Assembly he and his colleagues will begin to test the possibility that an U.S.-Iranian deal really is possible. It's bound to be a long movie and a wild ride, too. But luck, Iran's own calculations, and the president's willingness to use force to demonstrate prudence may well increase the chances of a success.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT