In his recent Nowruz address to the people of Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said something I have heard more than once from Iranian counterparts in track two (unofficial) discussions: “The negotiations with America are about the nuclear program and nothing else, everyone should know this . . . We will not negotiate with American over regional matters. The goals of the Americans on regional matters are exactly the opposite of our goals.” Indeed they are. Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony motivates its support for Assad regime war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. Likewise, its regional aims make it comfortable with Shia militia massacres in Iraq and with Lebanon’s version of murder incorporated: Hezbollah. One hopes that the Supreme Leader’s sentiments about absolute opposites find echoes in the White House.
In fact, there is considerable doubt among America’s friends in the region—Israelis and Arabs alike—that the Obama administration fully appreciates and consciously opposes Iran’s regional machinations. Barely a day goes by without evidence of some sort seeming to support that conclusion.
Reacting to reports of another Assad regime chemical attack on civilians—this one employing chlorine—a press statement issued on March 19 in the name of Secretary of State John Kerry called for an investigation, listed many of the regime’s daily depredations (“indiscriminate airstrikes, barrel bombings, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, murder, and starvation”), and twice called for accountability, but without the slightest suggestion that the United States would lift a finger to protect Syrian civilians. There is nothing at all in the statement alluding to the decisive role of Iran in keeping the regime alive politically and enabling its war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Then there was the statement issued by the White House in the wake of Syrian opposition figure Shaykh Moaz al-Khatib’s meeting with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. “Ambassador Rice stressed that Bashar al-Asad has lost all legitimacy to govern and must go, expressed concern for the humanitarian situation in Syria, and reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to a negotiated political transition that would preserve the institutions of the Syrian state, protect minorities, and lay the foundations for a more inclusive government.” Since August 18, 2011, the United States has been saying that Assad “must go,” while Iran and Russia have done things to ensure he stays. “Concern” for the signature humanitarian abomination of the 21st century? Perhaps it is a more convenient word than “horror” or “outrage” for an administration that has created a Syria exception for the words “Never Again.”
Some of us favorably disposed toward a nuclear agreement that effectively blocks Iran’s pathway to weaponization nevertheless feel deeply uncomfortable with the administration’s approach to getting one. Iran’s murderous aggression in the region is getting a free pass from the West out of fear that pushback will offend the Supreme Leader and cause him to abandon the talks. This approach is ill advised.
The Supreme Leader and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have, after all, been able to orchestrate violence far beyond their borders without having to fear provoking a regional nuclear crisis. They have done very well without going nuclear. They are not the least bit shy about saying so. Indeed, they were wise not to inspire any of their neighbors to go nuclear. Given Iran’s size and its enormous conventional advantages over its neighbors, it would be foolish and self-defeating for it to create nuclear warheads and mount them on missiles. Inspiring other regional actors to go nuclear would nullify the advantages of Iran’s sheer size and weight and make every Iranian foreign intervention a potential nuclear crisis.
So now Iran wishes to be paid handsomely and quickly for agreeing to steps that would convince outsiders that they will not do—at least not quickly and not unnoticed—things that have proven to be profoundly in their interests not to do. This is perfectly understandable, and it is not necessarily wrong for the West to work with Tehran on arrangements that would serve Iran’s interests but also block regional proliferation. Yet, if the Supreme Leader can enable mass murder while authorizing negotiations aimed at filling his coffers, why can’t the West negotiate in good faith while also countering his depredations, thereby saving lives?
It speaks volumes that a White House furious with the Prime Minister of Israel feels no apparent anger toward Iranian leaders who facilitate slaughter in Syria. No doubt, Mr. Netanyahu has said and done things that have provoked dismay, frustration, and anger. He is not, however, the person mainly responsible for keeping in place a Syrian political actor who for four years has waged a campaign of mass murder that has destroyed Syria, conjured the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), and destabilized a neighborhood filled with allies and friends of the United States. The energy expended to punish Prime Minister Netanyahu might be more usefully vectored toward protecting Syrian civilians from Assad and his principal benefactor.
Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.