Tehran’s Get Out of Jail Free Card

The nuclear deal may give Iran a freer hand in Syria.


Critics of this weekend’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran have focused on whether it gives Tehran too much freedom to continue with its enrichment efforts. But some Persian Gulf governments are beginning to express another concern: that the ongoing negotiations will give Tehran a free hand to expand its support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and other American adversaries throughout the region.

The nuclear deal signed in Geneva early Sunday morning has sparked controversy at home and abroad, with supporters arguing that it freezes or rolls back virtually all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest economic relief and critics countering that the agreement doesn’t require Tehran to actually dismantle any of its nuclear infrastructure.

Some Arab governments who are broadly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program privately concede that the Geneva accord isn’t nearly as bad as they feared. But they worry that the administration’s promise to spend the next six months locked in a full-on diplomatic push to find a permanent agreement with Tehran means the White House will be willing to look the other way if Iran ramps up its support for Assad, Hezbollah, and the increasingly sectarian and authoritarian Shiite government of Iraq.

"Does this deal make it more likely for Iran to change its behavior anywhere else in the Mideast?" one Gulf diplomat told The Cable."Do we think this deal will suddenly make Iran a more responsible player in Syria or Iraq? If anything, it gives Iran a freer hand because the administration won’t want to do anything to upset the nuclear talks."

This weekend’s agreement has attracted so much public attention that it’s been easy to forget that Washington’s concerns about Iran have long gone well beyond Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran is Assad’s primary ally, and it has provided his regime with both weaponry and well-trained soldiers and intelligence operatives. The Iranian support has helped the Syrian strongman regain the upper hand in his bloody war with the insurgents trying to force him out of power. Western officials who believed that Assad’s days were numbered now acknowledge that he could stay in power for months, if not years, to come.

"If Iran isn’t a global pariah, its activities in Syria become less objectionable," a senior Congressional aide told The Cable. "This has increased Iran’s flexibility in operating and throwing its weight around in illegitimate ways in the region."

U.S. officials also worry that Iran’s close ties to the Shiite government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have helped destabilize the country by fueling his increasingly sectarian tendencies. Maliki’s visit to Washington earlier this month was marred by a public dispute with lawmakers who believe Iraq’s soaring violence has come, in part, because Maliki has failed to give enough power or oil money to the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed in suicide bombings and other attacks in recent months, with Sunni militants claiming responsibility for the vast majority of the killings. Maliki, in turn, has issued arrest warrants for prominent Sunni politicians and had his security forces violently crack down on Sunni protests.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the current talks with Iran have focused solely on its nuclear program, but said the U.S. remains committed to "pushing back" against Iran’s support for terrorism and other efforts to spread its influence across the region.

"In the course of these negotiations, we have not dealt with regional security issues like Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Iran’s support for the Assad regime, but our concerns on those issues are the same today as they were three days ago before the agreement was reached," she said.

Still, concerns and actions don’t always line up, and it’s not at all clear that the White House will want to risk upsetting the delicate nuclear talks with Tehran by taking a hardline on other regional issues.

"Iran will have a lot greater leeway," said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The Syrian chemical weapons talks prioritized getting rid of the chemical weapons, not changing the military balance inside Syria. I expect the Iranian talks to similarly prioritize the nuclear issue and not the other items on the Iranian-U.S. agenda. They’ll get a pass on those, at least for now."

John Hudson contributed to this report 

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