Muhammad Hamed / Courtesy Reuters Syrian protesters living in Jordan burn shoes symbolizing Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, May 31, 2012.

The Iran Fallacy

Seeing Damascus, Thinking Tehran

Iran looms large in the debate over how to respond to the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed hundreds of civilians. For proponents of a muscular American response, strikes would be as much about deterring Iran as about punishing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons,” U.S. President Barack Obama maintained in his address to the country on Tuesday, “would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.” Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry have both increasingly focused on Iran in their public advocacy for a U.S. strike.

In this view, failing to robustly enforce Washington’s red line on the use of chemical weapons would equate to waving the white flag toward Tehran. Some would go so far as to say that opting for the Russian plan -- for the international community to remove chemical weapons from Syria -- would do so as well, given deep skepticism of Russian intentions and international inspections in general. It would signal to Iran’s leadership that American ultimatums are toothless and that popular aversion to another Middle Eastern military engagement ultimately means that the Islamic Republic can get away with defying the United States.

Washington’s linking of Iran and Syria should not come as any real surprise; it’s superficially compelling and politically appealing. It also happens to be wrong.

For decades, Syria’s Baathist regime claimed the lonely status of the Islamic Republic’s sole ally in the Arab world. Assad has only expanded those ties. Iran also factors heavily into the thinking of an American president who is personally committed to nonproliferation as a central component of his legacy.

The focus on Iran has another advantage as well: Iran arouses an unusual degree of

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