The new U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons has placed the campaign to launch strikes against Syria on hold. Proponents of war are not happy about that development, and they both hope and expect that the agreement will ultimately unravel. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham immediately denounced the agreement, arguing that a failure to attack Syria will convey a message of U.S. weakness to Iran.
It is the latest indication that for many proponents of assaulting Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Syria is not the primary target of U.S. wrath. It is merely the prelude to the main event: confronting and undermining Iran. “If we don’t get Syria right,” Senator Graham charged, “Iran is surely going to take the signals that we don’t care about their nuclear program.” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol is only a little more flagrant than his ideological colleagues in expressing the view that Iran is the real target. A “yes” vote to authorize force against Syria, he stated, “can be explained as a vote to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Syria is an Iranian proxy for Iran’s ability to move ahead unimpeded in its acquisition of nuclear weapons. To bring this point home, soon after voting to authorize the use of force against the Assad regime, Republicans might consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.”
But even Obama administration officials who may not be seeking war with Iran insist that attacking Syria would “send a message” to Tehran that Washington is deadly serious about preventing that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Conversely, they argue, a failure to act against Assad would encourage the Iranian mullahs to believe that the United States is a paper tiger. On several weekend television news programs just before Moscow disrupted matters by offering its chemical weapons proposal, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made such arguments.
Anyone watching those interviews might have experienced a sense of déjà vu. The notion that Iran would be intimidated or somehow transformed if the U.S. attacked another Middle East country is not a new idea; it was a staple of hawkish arguments during the prelude to the Iraq War from late 2001 to early 2003. Richard Perle insisted that having already destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan, moving against Saddam’s regime would send the message to Iran (and other supporters of terrorism such as Syria and Libya) that “‘You’re next.’ Two words. Very efficient diplomacy.”