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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT