Tale of two crises: connecting the dots from Iran to Syria

There are eight common elements in the two big breakthrough stories on Iran and Syria from New York on Sept. 26.

First, both crises are in the Middle East, a region racked by turmoil and upheaval since the outbreak of the Arab Spring two years ago. The regional fault lines, and the ways in which they connect to global major power fault lines, have been deeply unsettled and the contours of the new Middle East are anything but clear.

Second, both crises have been about weapons of mass destruction, nuclear (Iran) and chemical (Syria). Iran is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but has long been suspected of using its technology-accessing benefits as a cover to acquire and develop components, material, facilities and skills to be just one screwdriver away from the bomb if and when it chooses to cross the threshold. Iran reiterated its abhorrence and rejection of nuclear weapons. Syria has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Third, enforcement measures in both cases are routed through multilateral treaty-based arms control regimes. The NPT requires Iran to subject suspicious elements of its nuclear energy program to monitoring and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The normative taboo against chemical weapons is so strong that any countries that have them have acquired them clandestinely. Syria has confirmed long-held suspicions that it has and agreed to destroy a chemical weapons stockpile. The value, utility and continuing relevance of key multilateral arms control regimes are reaffirmed. There is life yet in multilateralism.

Fourth, the crises highlight starkly the key difference between the two global arms control regimes. The CWC is universal, nondiscriminatory and binding with equal legal force on all. Consequently the Security Council can demand with great moral authority that Syria sign the CWC and agree to the verifiable and irreversible destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile and infrastructure. Even though Russia and the United States have not been able to meet the agreed deadline for the destruction of their own stockpiles, they have nonetheless led by example.

By contrast the NPT still divides the world into those who have and others who must never get nuclear weapons. There is something deeply unsettling about those who possess around 17,000 nuclear weapons demanding that Iran must not get even one. Of course, Iran has signed the NPT and voluntarily surrendered its right to acquire nuclear weapons. But the P5 (U.S., Russia, China, United Kingdom and France) have also voluntarily signed the NPT and committed themselves to eliminating all nuclear weapons. It is hard to see how those who are in breach of treaty obligations can claim legitimacy and authority in trying to enforce its provisions on others. If they do so not because of moral right but based on military might, then this becomes an inducement to others to get nuclear weapons and join the ranks of the high and mighty.

Fifth, the big WMD elephant in the Middle East room is Israel which has not ratified the CWC nor signed the NPT. It does not admit to having nuclear weapons but is believed to possess around 80 nuclear weapons. Israel sees an undeclared but barely disguised nuclear weapons capability as compensating for its small size and population, lack of strategic depth and an appropriate response to the multiplicity of existential threats confronting it. The low-cost policy of deliberate ambiguity has given it the benefits of existential deterrence without directly opposing U.S. nonproliferation objectives.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made much of this in his U.N. speech, insisting that no country should possess nuclear weapons “since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons.” The P5′s and Western nations’ double standards on their own and Israeli nuclear weapons respectively are going to get progressively harder to disguise, deny and sustain.

Sixth, the crises demonstrate the merits and virtues of pursuing a balanced strategy of sticks and carrots. No country likes to capitulate, and be seen to do so, under threats. Western leaders seem to believe that their own resolve is stiffened under public external pressure but others behave to the opposite. It is almost as if Washington has forgotten how to do carrots.

On Syria, Russia and China agreed to a draft Security Council resolution only when the Western P3 (U.S., U.K. and France) gave ground on a built-in authorization of military strikes if Assad fails to comply. On Iran, President Barack Obama assured Tehran that Washington is not seeking regime change and respects its right to access peaceful nuclear energy, and acknowledged Iranian complaints about past U.S. interference in its internal affairs and for having overthrown an Iranian government during the Cold War.

Seventh, scholars believe that the most propitious time for ending a protracted conflict is when it ripens to the point of a mutually hurting stalemate and both sides recognize they are not going to prevail on the battlefield but are paying high costs while the conflict continues.

The tough sanctions have hurt Iran badly. Syria’s brutal civil war has taken a heavy toll on all sides. It will take years for the country to recover to pre-war conditions after the war ends.

America has paid a heavy price militarily, financially and reputationally for its addiction to invading countries in and around the Middle East. Repairing relations with Iran could help it achieve some core objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

As Washington geared up for yet another war of choice in August in Syria, the warmongering policy elite and commentariat were shocked into sobriety by the collapse of domestic, congressional and global support. Perhaps the default democratic settings of the great American republic have reasserted themselves.

Finally, the twin crises demonstrate the continuing utility of the U.N. The Security Council remains the cockpit for addressing geopolitical upheavals. The assumption behind its permanent membership and veto is that coercive international action by the society of states is dangerous unless the major powers are in agreement. Conversely, if and when they do agree, the U.N. machinery can translate consensus into concrete action. Both assumptions have been validated.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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