Iran is America’s real Middle East priority

By Ian Bremmer
September 6, 2013

While we’ve been distracted by a flurry of intelligence releases on Syria’s chemical weapons strikes — and the ongoing saga over the United States’ response — many have overlooked another intelligence report pertaining to weapons of mass destruction with severe implications for America’s red lines and credibility in the Middle East.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, reported that “Iran plans to test about 1,000 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges it has completed installing.” As Iran’s enrichment capabilities increase, its breakout time — how long Iran would need to rapidly amass enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon — is dropping considerably. In the next year or two, Iran’s breakout time could drop to about 10 days: too short of a window for the United States to reliably respond before Iran could secure enough material for a bomb.

America’s next step in Syria is inextricably linked to the situation in Iran. The U.S. government’s biggest national security concern in the region is an Iranian regime with potential access to nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the region, shock oil prices, and threaten U.S. allies. Longer term, it’s harder to map out the implications, but they aren’t pretty. A nuclear Iran could trigger a domino effect among Middle Eastern countries; should another Arab Spring occur, a failed state with a nuclear weapons cache is a frightening prospect.

Not intervening in Syria — letting Bashar al-Assad cross Obama’s red line of using chemical weapons on civilians — makes any red lines regarding Iran’s nuclear progress blurrier. In fact, by punting the decision to Congress and further complicating the causality between a broken red line and punishment, Obama may have already done just that.

It’s a quirk of history that Obama is in this position in the first place. When Obama originally set his red line back in August 2012, he caught his advisers completely off guard. As the New York Times reported in May:

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

If Obama set the red line without consulting his own staff, he certainly didn’t ascertain whether other nations would also “change their calculus” in response to chemical weapons use. That helped lead to the embarrassment in Britain last week, when the House of Commons declined to join any potential American strike against Syria. This is possibly Obama’s hardest-earned lesson of the Syria debate thus far: even if you feel the need to tout American exceptionalism, don’t let it apply to your red lines. If you set a red line by yourself, be prepared to defend it alone as well.

Let that be a lesson on Iran. With the recent IAEA report suggesting that Iran is inching ever closer towards nuclear breakout capacity, potential upcoming negotiations with Iran carry an even greater urgency than usual. And there are compelling reasons to be optimistic (or at least less pessimistic than usual): both parties have something that the other wants, and Iran has a new president.

In June, Hassan Rouhani won the Iranian presidential election with an outright majority — as a centrist candidate with a platform of patching up relations with the West. Ahmadinejad’s retirement is perhaps an even greater addition by subtraction. While it’s important to remember that the buck stops with the Ayatollah, Rouhani’s election could usher in a reset in negotiations, and perhaps a modest deal, likely in the form of inspections and a slowdown in enrichment in return for reduced economic sanctions.

The United States needs to seize this chance. If negotiations fail, it could still prove difficult to maintain the current level of sanctions pressure for two reasons. First, because Iran now has a charismatic president instead of one who’s easy to hate and speaks out against Israel. Second, Rouhani is bent on promoting transparency and efficiency in the Iranian domestic economy. This makes it more tempting for countries like China, India and Russia to strike deals with Iran — even if it means bending the rules on sanctions. As the United States has witnessed in Syria, it’s hard to hold the international community to a strict red line — especially when there are economic incentives to the contrary.

So what’s next in Syria? It’s more likely than not that Congress will approve a limited military strike — and that the ensuing intervention will prove to be limited. If Congress rejects the president’s call for a military strike, it will set a dangerous precedent on American red lines and undermine the United States’ credibility in advance of possible talks. If Obama’s proposal does pass and the U.S. strikes, the administration must prepare for the risk that Iran will respond with escalatory asymmetric attacks, and it must ensure that any fallout from Syria does not scuttle upcoming nuclear negotiations.

A few months from now, in all likelihood, the U.S. will once again be on the sidelines in Syria, decrying continued violence with rhetoric but little action. Media attention will shift to the high stakes dynamics with Iran. It is, after all, where the U.S. government has been focusing all along.

PHOTO: Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost 

22 comments

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So, we’re supposed to kill a few hundred to a few thousand people to maintain the credibility of Obummer’s “red lines in the sand”? How about we tell him where he can stuff his red lines instead?

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

I may not agree with attacking Syria, but I could see it becoming a pretext to bomb the living daylights out of Iran and anywhere else those Jihad wannabes are hiding. So if it’s time to batten down the hatches and let the missiles, bombs and troops take the velvet gloves off over there then let it be so because these war(s) have gone on long enough. Time to have an End Game! Don’t worry Ian Bremmer Israel will have to break some off regardless if Syria is the United States main priority. Israel needs to quit worrying about Obama’s plan and form their own! America will still end up cleaning up Iran, Syria and wherever else those little buggers are hiding!

Posted by Lemming | Report as abusive

The real victims in all of this are those forced into refugee camps because all they desired was to live in peace! More should be said about that than any possible strike on Syria or Iran.

Posted by Lemming | Report as abusive

Right Iran is the real problem because she makes trouble internationally not just local. So Syria should be put off until we deal with the Iranian Clergy and those with technical and military skills enabling the clergy.

Syria falls with out Iran, anyway. It is diversion from Iran. There3 lots of bad guys in the world so need pick our fights. A nuclear Iran will be a nuclear treat to us.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

he Syrian Bath party kills locals, Iranian clergy supports all sorts of international killing organization. Therefore, Iran should be dealt with first and strongest. If we strength and the desire to kill more bad guys then the Syrian Bath party. But no one elected us world court. Bad guys that are not a direct treat to us should be dealt with by the whole world and we should not go it alone there at all.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

It’s okay though if North Korea develops a nuclear ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. because Israel wouldh’t be threatened.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive

Starting from 911, then Afghanistan and now Syria it becomes more obvious that Al Qaeda is winning. The USA does not know how and where to react and strike back at present. It got lost completely.

Well done CIA, you guys had trained up a formidably Pan-Arab fighting force. You guys should start to clear the mess up now as using formal military and political power is completely useless in beating Al Qaeda. I think you old trick works with reference to your successful capture of Che Quevara. That is to train any Arab team up to fight Al Qaeda, it costs much less anyway.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

Sorry. I mean ‘to train another Arab team up’.

Ongoing isolation and sanction cannot solve the Iran problem. That will only boost their resolve to develope neuclear weapon. North Korea is already a good example.

Why not get in touch of them now as Iran’s new preseident Rouhani is more open and pragmatic. Don’t forget the USA has indeed successfully helped to open China up and achieved ending hostility between the two countries. There is no any sense of anti American imperialist among Chinese people nowadays as occured before 1970s.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

Throwing Syria into complete sectarian chaos has been the American and Israeli plan right from the start. Their intent is to weaken Iranian influence and to isolate Hezbollah.

With support from the Sunni Arab autocrats in the Gulf and their “foreign legion” (i.e. Al-Qaeda), the plan has worked remarkably well – at least thus far.

What remains to be seen are the long-terms repercussions which are always far more difficult to read.

For example, Will this onslaught by the US, Israel and their European lackeys on Shia civilization commit Iran to establishing a nuclear deterrent?

Personally, I hope it does.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Chemical weapons. Nuclear bombs. While they may have been in WWI and WWI these are not even viable weapons today. It is time to wake up and realize if Iran create a bomb and are stupid enough to use it against another country it will be the end of Iran – from the 6000 ICMB of the US or the rumoured 200 nuclear weapons of Israel Iran would nothing but radioactive tumbleweed blowing across the desert. Besides, North Korea has the bomb already and it is far more delusional and unstable than Iran. In reality, any country who wants one badly enough can have one – for example, the apartheid regime of South Africa built five nukes while isolated from the world.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Basically, this supposed problem with Iran belongs to Israel, just as the Syria problem does.

I personally feel quite friendly with Iran, and admire its independence. In many ways, Iran embodies the original “can do” ethic of America. America should have Iran as an ally in the Middle East, and quit their abject kowtowing to Israel.

Regards nuclear breakout capability of Iran, I’m all for it if it keeps the dogs of war at bay. Iran has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are against their principles, and I tend to believe them. Breakout capability will prevent US/Israel attack. The US/Israel is the problem with nuclear weapons, and they show no intent to get rid of this ultimate power and threat over others.

The unremitting propaganda against Iran comes from the same sources as the current campaign against Assad. The world is not buying it. I am starting to believe in humanity again.

@Bidnis: You make the point well! The world is finding that logic works in the Syrian case, and can now apply logic regarding Iran.

As Zbigniew Brzezinski fears, a “Global Political Awakening” is in progress, and it makes war obsolete.

We are seeing the underbelly of the financial/military elite and their bought-out or emotionally-manipulated sycophants, and the world is no longer buying in to their program. If these malevolent elite want to acquire more power and money, they’ll have to do it a little more honestly, without war.

Iran has no interest in war, but I’m certain they will rightly defend themselves from overt military attack. So far, they have shown great forbearance and intelligence in avoiding direct confrontation with the West, and have made the best out of our illegal sanctions program, basically acts of war against them. Pushed by the West, Iran gets economically stronger by advancing scientific, technical and engineering standards, besides maintaining their devotion to culture and the arts. They are becoming highly self-sufficient in military defense (not offence though as here in the West). Their financial, manufacturing and shipping industries are advancing. And we are driving them out of the Western sphere of influence into the waiting arms of our competitors.

First we drive Iraq into Iran’s arms. Now, Syria into those of Russia and Iran. And finally, Syria and Iran into China’s arms, along with Russia. Is this really the plan of the Western elite?
Somehow I fear it is, else how could the elite have let Bush/Cheney/Neocons be so stupid with Iraq?
They’re saving China for the coup de grace of their global plans? Or, are they just plain stupid, and content to sell their weapons on a day by day basis, in true capitalist form?

Also, it is time for a lot of our talking heads to re-think themselves.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

America has no business in Iran, never has and never will. Iran is Iran. America is America. Lets keep them separate, shall we. America just needs to get the he!! out of anywhere that isn’t America. Unless you want to go somewhere for vacation, or on a mission, stay home. Do you want Iran telling us how to run our country? If the answer is no, then we have absolutely no business telling Iran how to run their country. If they “nuke” Israel, they nuke themselves. They are seriously not that stupid, unlike America, which has no problem exposing its citizens to radioactive biohazards every single day.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

It is too late now, after stupid war in Iraq, there is a Shiite axis- Lebanon- Syria- Iraq- Iran. Even for US it is too much to handle.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

@kommy:

Too late as you say, and the Shiite axis has the backing of Russia, China, probably India, maybe Japan, and substantial parts of the rest of the world.

The world global elite needs a new plan, hopefully not something as barbaric as they have been working on in the ME.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

ISRAEL has nuclear weapons.

ISRAEL claimed to have PROOF that IRAQ had reconstituted in nuclear weapons program and the US went into a 10+ year war and occupation of IRAQ over that pack of lies killing millions of Iraqis and thousands of US military and costing us taxpayers at least $720M per day.

ISRAEL claimed that IRAN was just weeks from having a nuclear weapon in 1985!! And they repeat that lie every few months ad nauseam!

The only gov’t in the middle east with war-mongering tendencies and known nuclear weapon technology is ISRAEL!
IRAN hasn’t started wars in centuries and has often proposed nuclear disarmament with IAEA surprise inspections. It is ISRAEL that refuses!

It is ISRAEL that refuses to sign the NNPT and allow IAEA inspections.

It is ISRAEL that tried to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa and has probably sold them to North Korea and other rogue states.

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive

Obviously Iran is the real bad actor in the Middle East as far as international actions and is governed by a clergy and clergy almost by definition are ideologues who live in world that may not be reality. Making a nuclear Iran a danger to whole world. She has armed terrorists far beyond her borders. Iran is not a local bad guy it is an international one.

Therefore any strike against any other actor in the Middle East should be on hold, until Iran is dealt with. Others are distraction which may limit forces and will needed for Iran.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Well, I agree Iran is important.
Plan: (just a trial) Say to Assad “You are a figurehead. We know others in the dynasty and esp the Air Force call the shots.
We know the Air Force was in at the beginning with a terror campaign of the wort sort.
Now, how would you like to be a real President? Just agree to talks with the Rebels. Aim for a real Parlaiment/Congress. Then exclude the jihadists (easy).
But you must hand over your War Criminals to the Hague.

That would stop the killing and allow dialogue with Iran.

Posted by seymourfrogs | Report as abusive

Dear Dr. Bremmer:

You present your political analyses in a tone that implies a knowledge of global affairs that is much deeper than that which the average person could possibly have. This tone is evident in your 2013 Sep 6 article regarding the possibility of a US military response to the 2013 Aug 21 use of what appears to have been chemical weapons in Syria. However, nothing in your 2013 Sep 6 article suggests that you were aware of the proposal, made public on 2013 Sep 9, for the US (et al.) to forgo a military response if Syria surrenders its previously denied stockpiles of chemical weapons, despite reports, also made public on 2013 Sep 9, that such a deal had been under international discussion, not just between Presidents Putin and Obama at the 2013 Sep 5-6 G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, but well in advance of the 2013 Aug 21 event that raised the level of international tensions surrounding the civil war in Syria. In light of this information that you seemed to be missing as of 2013 Sep 6, could you please restate your hypothesis that US foreign policy toward Syria is oriented solely with a view toward Iran?

Regards,

MoBioph

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

@Lemming, are you a spokesman for the Apartheid Isreali government?? Do they pay you with dollars or blood?

@Samrch, are you a spokesman for the MEK?

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Offer Iran the engineering data on LFTR. (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor). Oak Ridge ran a molten salt reactor several years until Nixon shut it down. Its a safe form of nuclear power, which Iran says it wants, but it didnt produce the isotopes Nixon wanted to build bombs with.

While it does produce Uranium 233, this is so close to the Thorium, at 232, that the centrifuges Iran has would be useless. Begging the question of why the offer hasnt already been made. Once manufacture of say, 1000mw units had been started, the installed 10 year amortization on location would be $0.03/kwhr, driving down energy costs (and oil company profits) dramatically.

Posted by DayBrown | Report as abusive

Great idea, DayBrown!

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

The game changed. No need for warfare harming civilians when drones can be used to assassinate demagogues fomenting violence. Media has realized drones could target TV studios with Sarin. Bunker busters can be laser guided to drop into the same hole repeatedly until the bunker under it is destroyed. No need for zealots to fly air planes into buildings. War is now personal. The rest of us are not involved and wont be consulted.

Posted by DayBrown | Report as abusive