So Syria’s chemical weapons have made life a little more interesting lately. I know enough to know that I don’t know enough to say whether we should intervene in Syria. I do know something about Iran, though. Here, I’m briefly going to argue that not intervening (or a very limited intervention) in Syria could help our ongoing negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Before going further, I want to emphasize that this departs from the conventional wisdom. The standard argument is that failure to intervene in Syria shows weakness–if we aren’t resolved enough to attack Syria, we are less likely to attack Iran, so we should attack Syria to maintain the plausibility of the bluff.
The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the scope of these missions. We could plausibly commit to an air campaign in Syria a la Libya from a few years ago. Iran’s nuclear program, however, is complicated enough that air strikes might do more harm than good. And if you look at public opinion polls on Syria, a majority(ish) supports strikes. Due to Iraq’s shadow, the support for a ground war is in the single digits. Thus, the overall American war narrative here is that air strikes are okay but ground wars are not.
Back to Iran. One reason we cannot reach an agreement with Iran is our inability to credibly commit to a bargain. Given our negotiation history, Iran is worried that if we ever find ourselves in a position of strength again (like right after the fall of Baghdad but before the start of the insurgency), we will immediately cut all concessions to Tehran. Consequently, Iran views nuclear weapons as a costly insurance policy–a wasteful but necessary evil. Yet, if we could simply keep our commitment to not intervene credible, Iran would have no need to proliferate, and we would all be better off.
So if we state a full-scale assault on Syria, we officially signal that the lessons from Iraq are irrelevant, and we as Americans just don’t mind seeking total victory against weaker states. If we don’t do anything to Syria, or just limit the intervention to light aerial bombardments, we signal that Iraq ushered in a new era in which we just don’t do that type of thing anymore. In the former case, Iran will scramble to finish a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible. In the latter case, we reassure Tehran that our commitments to nonproliferation inducements are credible.
The whole thing is a strategic mess. But if you want to learn more about credible commitment in nonproliferation agreements (and incidentally preview my upcoming Peace Science presentation), check out this chapter from my dissertation.