Reassuring the Supreme Leader?

Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) shake hands as Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi (2nd R) and EU envoy Catherine Ashton watch in Muscat November 9, 2014. Zarif began talks with Kerry and Ashton in Oman on Sunday to try to advance efforts to end a standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, a witness said. REUTERS/Nicholas Kamm/Pool

The Wall Street Journal published a report by Jay Solomon and Carol Lee on November 6, saying that in mid-October of this year President Barack Obama dispatched a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei , one which—among other things—”sought to assuage Iran’s concerns about the future of its close ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria… [the letter] states that the US’s military operations inside Syria aren’t targeted at Mr. Assad or his security forces.” If it is able to do so truthfully, the administration must deny that such an assurance was rendered. Its reputation and the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians are at stake.

To date, the Obama administration has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the reported letter. This refusal to comment is absolutely proper. The alleged assurance to Supreme Leader Khamenei is, however, something else entirely. If it is untrue, it simply cannot be allowed to stand unrefuted.

The hope and belief here is that one (or more) of Mr. Solomon’s and Ms. Lee’s sources is either speculating about contents or trying deliberately to boost the Assad regime and utterly deflate the regime’s nationalist opposition by promoting a story that pumps oxygen into the lungs of Middle Eastern conspiracy mongering: a tale causing people to link the recent surge in Assad regime barrel bombings to the alleged assurance of regime immunity. Without confirming or denying the letter itself, the administration must—for the sake of the president’s reputation and his announced policy of building an opposition military force and promoting moderate governance inside Syria—deny the allegation in forceful terms.

The allegation of an assurance seems absurd on its face. The Obama administration is fully aware of the central role Iran has played in enabling its client, Bashar al-Assad, to survive politically in western Syria. Iran’s Qods Force has provided invaluable advisory and organizational services to the regime. Iran has imported to Syria foreign fighters to revive regime forces and reverse, in 2013, the military momentum in favor of the regime. Iran has facilitated a systematic, diligently recorded Assad regime campaign of war crimes and crimes against humanity, one that has produced the premier humanitarian abomination of the still young 21st century and tons of hard evidence (much authored by regime functionaries) for future prosecutions. Iran has succeeded in securing the survival of a client whose enthusiastic, unquestioning support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah Tehran deems vital to dominating Lebanon, threatening Israel, and conducting terrorist operations literally anywhere on the planet.

Has the Supreme Leader actually asked to be reassured that this horror show will be allowed to continue indefinitely and uninterrupted? No doubt he wants his Syrian client untouched and even aided by the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Yet would he have the effrontery to ask for such a thing?

As the Obama administration knows, Tehran considers Assad to be the vital link between it and its representative in Lebanon: Hezbollah. For Iran, it is essential that the threat of Hezbollah rockets and missiles targeting Israeli civilians be kept in a high state of operational readiness. It is likewise essential to Iran that Hezbollah dominate Lebanon and hold all Lebanese hostage to Iranian strategic priorities. Assad’s services are key to achieving these objectives. Yet, would the Supreme Leader have the supreme arrogance to ask the President of the United States to reassure him that his vital link to Hezbollah remain unbroken? Would he really expect the United States to consciously facilitate the military readiness of an organization that imperils Lebanon and poses a palpable threat to the people of Israel and Syria? Perhaps he would. Yet it seems unlikely.

It seems immeasurably less likely that the United States would, unbidden, proffer gratuitous assurances to Iran with respect to Assad. The risks, after all, would be prohibitive. What would prevent the Supreme Leader from notifying Syria’s master of impunity that he has received from Washington a grant of immunity? What would then prevent Assad from upping the tempo of barrel bombing, thus raising to new heights the sheer terror of daily life, death, and panicked displacement in Syrian villages and urban neighborhoods beyond regime control? Indeed, what would prevent Assad from trying to finish off—with the help of ISIS—the armed nationalist opposition President Obama says he wants to support through a train-and-equip program?

Moreover, the idea (as reported by Solomon and Lee) of a letter “aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal” seems not credible. A letter may well exist. But why would the Supreme Leader need to be nudged to do things that are manifestly in the interests of Iran’s ruling elite definition of Iranian national security interests?

True, ISIS in Syria is working in tandem with the Assad regime to destroy a nationalist opposition half-heartedly backed by Washington. But surely Tehran sees Iranian national security benefit in beating ISIS in Iraq. In terms of a nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader hopes to be paid well for forswearing acquisition of a weapon he has deemed forbidden by the tenets of Islam. Surely, Washington is concerned that a nuclear arrangement might prove to be a one-off agreement having no negative effect on Iran’s aggressively sectarian penetration of the Arab world. Surely, the administration knows that Iran needs no nudging when it comes to the cold calculation of regime and national interests.

It seems highly unlikely that the Obama administration would run the risk of taking partial ownership of an enhanced Assad regime terror campaign by assuring Bashar al-Assad’s security and political good health. Likewise, there is no way the administration would want to render itself viewed as complicit in sustaining the Tehran-Damascus link to Hezbollah, with all that would imply for the safety of Israelis, Lebanese, and Syrians. Finally, as a matter of diplomatic tradecraft, it seems profoundly unlikely that the United States would approach Iran from the standpoint of there being a cosmic misunderstanding to be bridged. A letter? Perhaps. But the risks imbedded in the reported contents inevitably raise doubts. As Solomon and Lee reported, senior administration officials were not their sources.

Still, the seeming absurdity of these allegations will not prevent them from being believed by Syrians and by key members of the anti-ISIS coalition. Suspicions of a secret Washington-Damascus handshake are as ubiquitous as they are unfounded. This is why a definitive denial of the alleged assurances to Iran on Syria is mandatory.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.