Sending Messages to Tehran
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough knows a lot about the president's thinking and feeling about the world. Remember that the about-face on Syria followed a long walk-and-chat involving the two of them. So we should pay attention to what he says:
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that an impending U.S. attack on Syria would send a message to Iranian leaders that they should not feel free to develop nuclear weapons.
I think we should take that as a direct text message from the president. What does it mean, exactly? For starters, it surely means that American calculations are not limited to Syria alone. We're also thinking about Iran, which is entirely proper. As I've said, Syria isn't an independent actor. Assad's survival depends on Iran and Russia, therefore Khamenei and Putin are bigtime players. On the ground, Khamenei matters more than Putin, because so much of the fighting is actually conducted by Iranian forces. But in the "international arena" Putin is a major player, as we see from the global sigh of expectant relief at the news of his proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under "international control." As if that worked in Iraq...
So it's altogether understandable that Obama would be thinking about Iran at the same time he thinks about Syria. They are part of the same big problem, along with Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Kurdistan. If the Iranians get their nukes, it will be bad for Obama (never mind the consequences in the real world; politicians' first concern is for that handsome devil in the mirror), and so his decisions, such as they are, elsewhere in the world are pushed through the Iranian filter. How will this play in Tehran?
That's the meaning of McDonough's statement about "sending a message." If Obama wimps out on Syria the Iranians will figure that he'll wimp out on them, too. If you had any doubts, here's Susan Rice, the national security advisor:
"We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," Rice declared. "As the president has said, all options remain on the table. For our efforts to succeed, however, the leaders in Tehran must know that the United States means what we say."
"If we do not respond when Iran's close ally uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran? It risks suggesting that the international community cannot muster the will to act when necessary," Rice said.
And here's Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:
"A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments -- including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," he said, adding, "The word of the United States must mean something.”
Which is fair enough, so far as it goes, which isn't really far enough. Because the Iranians have already reached that conclusion. They're not sitting around wondering what we are going to do; they are pushing their advantage on all fronts, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan...and Nigeria, for that matter. They think they've got us on the run, and the Putin scheme reflects that. He's pulling the global plug on the president, at once underlining Obama's indecisiveness, his weakness at home, and his impotence.
It's too late to send indirect messages to Khamenei. A very small military raid won't do it. They would have to see that the threat of regime change is suddenly real -- in Tehran or Damascus, it all comes to the same thing in their reckoning -- to start taking Obama seriously.
So if he really wants to send a message to Tehran, he's got to do it directly, and it has to take the form of a real threat to the regime.
It's doable, although probably not by this president. It requires the United States to support the Iranian opposition, which is the greatest threat to Khamenei et. al. Indeed, it's the only threat they take seriously. They know their people hate them (you don't have three thousand prisoners on death row unless you're worried).
We must hope that this constant refrain about "sending a message to Tehran" will finally prompt some American leaders to say, "Yeah, let's send them a message: we are going to support your mortal enemies, we want a free Iran."