Daniel W. Drezner

Syria, Iran, and The Credibility Fairy

Syria, Iran, and The Credibility Fairy

Your humble blogger continues to be interested in the divide between current/former policymakers and academics over the meaning and significance of "credibility" in international affairs.  I have bent over backwards to suggest that maybe, just maybe, policymakers know something we don’t.  But increasingly, I’m wondering whether the Syria deal highlights just how much policymaker types need to gain a wider perspective.

For exhibit A, there’s the New York Times’ Thom Shanker and Lauren D’Avolio, who report that former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta are pretty critical about the Syria deal because of concerns about… credibility with Iran:

Mr. Panetta… said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.

When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Mr. Panetta said.

“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said….

Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who advised four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both former secretaries said that American credibility on Syria was essential to enduring efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta said. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.” (emphases added)

Other former senior policymakers I’ve talked to this week have also stressed the Iran angle.  Even if they acknowledge that what happened in Syria is not going to affect events in North Korea, they point out that Iran is in the same neighborhood and will undoubtedly process Obama’s "climbdown" on Syria into their calculations on what to do with respect to their own nuclear program. 

Now, that certainly makes intuitive sense.  So the Iranians must be hardening their negotiating position on the nuclear question, right?  Let’s go to the Financial Times’ Najmeh Bozorgmehr:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has advocated flexibility in talks with major powers in a rare public acknowledgment of his determination to find a solution to the dispute over the country’s nuclear programme.

Uh…. I don’t think that’s what Panetta meant.  Hmm… maybe the FT got it wrong.  Let’s check the New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink’s coverage

A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.

In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.

But… but… what about Syria?!  Surely the Iranians have processed what happened in that crisis and have decided to double down in hawkishness, right?  C’mon, help me out here, Erdbrink!

Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”

Son of a….

Now, if you read the Erdbrink story, it’s clear that Iran’s desperate, sanctions-induced economic straits are playing a key role in a months-in-the-planning rollout to reignite negotiations with the West.  So it’s not like compellence doesn’t matter. 

But I wonder if reaching an agreement on Syria might have also sent an unanticipated but useful signal to Iran.  As I’ve blogged about in the past, the Obama administration has toggled back and forth between wanting to cut a nuclear deal and wanting to foment regime change in Iran.  From Iran’s perspective, this made it very, very hard to believe that the U.S. government could credibly commit to any nuclear agreement with the current regime. 

As Phil Arena pointed out with respect to Syria, softening a hardline position on Syria might have enhanced U.S. credibility in negotiations:  

[T]he most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the US couldn’t be appeased. That they faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the US to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons. Once debate within the US made it clear that regime change wasn’t the goal, that the US really doesn’t much care how many innocent people are raped and killed so long as they aren’t gassed, everything changed. The lack of resolve signaled by the US might have served to convince Putin and Assad that the US could be bought off, and relatively cheaply.

One can extend Arena’s logic to negotiations with Iran.  Rather than accommodation on Syria signaling a weakening of resolve to Iran, it might have signaled something very different — a willingness of the United States to accept the negotiations track.  As Arena’s analysis suggests, such deals carry policy tradeoffs.  But it seems like the willingness to negotiate on Syria has, on the margins, bolstered rather than weakened Iran’s willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal.  This would be consistent, by the way, with Anne Sartori’s research on the importance of credibility in diplomacy.

Now if you think the primary goal in Iran or Syria should be regime change, or if you think that Syria’s concessions now and Iran’s concessions later will be meager, then this post will be of little comfort.  And as Arena points out, there are some sticky policy tradeoffs here for U.S. policymakers.  But Iran’s behavior vitiates the notion that Obama’s policy reversals on Syria have somehow emboldened Iran’s leadership into adopting a more hawkish position.  If anything, the opposite is true. 

Or, in other words — and I mean this with all due respect — policymakers treat credibility as this magical overarching concept that only applies to "resolve to use military force."  It’s possible that credibility is a more circumscribed effect… and applies to diplomacy just as much as force.

What do you think?