Will US about-face on military action in Syria encourage Iran to go nuclear?

The degrading of the jihadist forces fighting in Syria would certainly benefit the Assad regime in Damascus – Iran’s long-time protege.

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2010.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2010.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US-led air campaign currently underway against Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist targets in Syria is a mixed bag as far as Iran is concerned.
On the one hand the weakening or containment of Sunni jihadists operating in Iran’s “zone of influence” is a cardinal national security interest of the Shi’ite regime in Teheran.
The degrading of the jihadist forces fighting in Syria would certainly benefit the Assad regime in Damascus – Iran’s long-time protege.
On the other hand, US President Barack Obama’s about-face on military action in Syria probably came as a strategic surprise for Iran. Obama’s steadfast objection to any new US military expeditions was an important Iranian asset as it considered the risk of a US and/or Israeli preemptive attack on its nuclear program. However, the launching by Washington of an open-ended military campaign in Syria must have changed Iran’s calculations. While Obama is still adamantly opposed to “boots on the ground” in Syria (and Iraq) in the case of going after Iran’s nuclear installations this caveat is meaningless given that a preemptive attack will be (almost) exclusively air- and missile-borne. In short, after Syria, Teheran can no longer rely on Obama to act as the main break on a possible preemptive strike against its nuclear facilities.
Secondly, like his predecessor’s administration after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Obama’s decision to act in Syria (and Iraq) is signaling that at least in certain cases he has abandoned deterrence in favor of preemption.
Thirdly, in Syria the US is leading a grouping of Arab Sunni monarchies (the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) situated in proximity to Iran which are known for their hostility to or suspicion of the radical Shi’ite regime in Teheran.
The military collaboration against a common enemy cannot be overlooked by the mullahs. Nor can Teheran ignore these countries’ opposition to Iran’s nuclear gambit. In time they may even demand Washington reciprocate in kind when their vital interests are at stake.
Worse yet, unlike the case of the Iraqi government, the attacks in Syria did not come in response to a request from Damascus. Nor were they sanctioned by a UN Security Council resolution.
After Syria, Iran can no longer depend on a diplomatic stalemate at the UN to block the Obama administration’s resort to military means.
Instead the formation of a “coalition of the willing” has been skillfully used by Washington to outflank the UN and provide a substitute mechanism to legitimize what Iran’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani dubbed “unilateral policies [to] violate the sovereignty of states,” according to the official IRNA news agency on September 13.
No wonder The Wall Street Journal quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on September 24 as telling journalists on the fringes of the UN General Assembly “these bombings [in Syria] do not have any legal standing, so we can interpret them as an attack.”
The new geopolitical circumstances facing Iran have unnerved the mullahs.
They may not lose sleep over the (discomforting) notion that the world is seemingly coming together to preemptively block fanatics from unleashing a host of nightmarish scenarios.
Yet, Teheran is deeply anxious that under the pretext of fighting IS, America has manufactured an international veneer to facilitate the build-up of its military forces on Iran’s doorstep. Why else would Rouhani hasten to tell the UN General Assembly that Iran was (incredibly) a “moderate [country]”? His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was on the phone with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu as soon as the Parliament in Ankara voted to authorize expanded military operations in Iraq and Syria and to allow foreign forces to launch operations from Turkish territory.
According to AFP, on October 2 Zarif “criticized the method chosen to fight terrorism.”
Even more telling is the barrage of warnings coming from various Iranian air defense commanders extolling their forces’ readiness to intercept the most minute intrusion into the country’s air space. For example, the semi-official FARS News Agency on September 20 said the commander of Isfahan province’s air defense base, General Abazar Jokar, “Underlined [at a press conference] that [Iran] enjoys such a powerful air defense system that no enemy flying object can approach the country’s border without being noticed and confronted.”
Two days later, Iran’s Tansim news service reported that “a high-ranking” Iranian military official, commander of the Khatam al-Anbia air defense base, Brig.-Gen. Farzad Esmalil, said that the country’s homegrown air defense system, known as Talash (Endeavor), “can hit flying targets in all altitudes.”
On September 24, FARS cited his deputy, Brig.-Gen. Mohammad Hossein Shamkhali, as stressing that “Iran’s radar system can discover and trace any kind of flying object in two minutes.” Undoubtedly this and other such declarations sought to reassure Iran’s leaders the country is safe after the reported interception in late August of an alleged Israeli reconnaissance drone over Iran’s uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.
However, there should be little doubt Shamkhali had in mind the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fifth-generation stealth fighter, which made its combat debut two days earlier by conducting bombing runs over Syria.
His colleague, head of the Artesh Industrial Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Office Admiral 2nd class Farhad Amiri, made the connection even clearer. The same day he unveiled an “advanced” surveillance system. According to Iran’s Defa Press Amiri noted that “by using this system, stealth aircraft are discovered; and by providing the necessary notices, we keep these aircraft far from our country.”
Further, on September 29, FARS quoted Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the airspace department of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as saying that the Islamic Republic has developed a new surface- to-surface cruise missile with a range of 700 kilometers – over twice the distance earlier versions of Iranian cruise missiles could supposedly fly. Accordingly, the “Ya Ali” is capable of being fired from ground launchers as well as by fighter jets.
There is little question the “revelation” was made for the ears of US naval commanders, especially those on American aircraft carriers and Tomahawk cruise-missile-carrying ships operating in waters near Iran.
After all, “Ya Ali” was already displayed during supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s tour of an exhibition of the IRGC’s aerospace forces last May.
Just in case Israel was thinking it can exploit the regional realignment to attack and believes the Iron Dome air defense system will defend it like it did during the recent war with Hamas, Gen. Hajizadeh noted that Hezbollah’s missile and drone capabilities have greatly improved since the 2006 Lebanon war. He reminded the rest of the forces in the theater that Iran was not seeking surface- to-surface missiles with ranges greater than the current 2,000 km, as this was an “ideal” range. Iran, he stated, was focusing on improving the accuracy and power of its missiles.
Under the circumstances, and assuming the West will not capitulate, any hopes for meaningful progress in the nuclear talks with Iran may be misplaced. The mullahs are unlikely to offer concessions which could significantly impair the nuclear break-out capability Iran has. They probably reason that the strategic rationale for Iran’s nuclear option is stronger now than ever. Teheran knows the eventual target of the new virulent Sunni onslaught will surely be Shi’ite Iran. In addition, it has to take into account the political and strategic implications of America’s new regional posture and the Sunni state’s willingness to commit militarily to preemptive action. The mullahs may also fear that, given the new geopolitical realities, their tactic of delaying a nuclear deal to buy time is at an end and that chances of military action against their nuclear installations may be growing. Rouhani seems to share this assessment.
He told the UN General Assembly, “Those who may think of any other [than diplomatic] solutions [to the nuclear question] would be committing a grave mistake in doing so.”
On all these grounds, the mullahs will likely conclude Iran must acquire the ultimate deterrent and give the green light to going nuclear.
Assuming this analysis to be valid, the implications for Israel could be dire. First, Israeli intelligence would more than ever be faced with the daunting task of detecting the secret Iranian decision to go nuclear. In so doing it must resist the popular conception which holds that adverse changes in Iran’s strategic environment will make the mullahs more cautious. In other words, that America’s new regional strategic posture would have a greater deterrent impact on Iran’s nuclear decisions.
The opposite may in fact be true.
Second, Iran is likely to step up efforts to divert Israel into other theaters. In the wake of Operation Defensive Edge Iranian officials had already announced their intentions to develop and arm a new West Bank front against Israel. This project could now receive top priority. Iran may also seek to rekindle the Gaza front and even encourage Hezbollah to heat up the northern border.
Finally, an Israeli decision on preempting Iran’s nuclear plans could be nearer than first realized.
The bottom line is that the brunt of Obama’s new anti-jihadist offensive could be borne by Israel, of all countries.
The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).