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

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 bipartisanship in a highly fractured and polarized Washington. Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, argued in the Washington Post that a failure to strike would make a mockery of American willingness to deter an Iranian nuclear capability. And Dennis Ross, who has served as a Middle East peace envoy for U.S. presidents from both parties, advanced the claim that Iranian advocates of diplomacy need an American strike on Syria to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. No wonder, then, that as public and congressional skepticism about involvement in Syria has mounted, Iran has only taken on greater prominence in the Obama administration’s argument.

There is just one catch: to think that a strike on Syria would send a message to Iran is to fundamentally misread the Iranian psyche. Doing something in Syria may make sense on the merits, especially if it would help resolve the civil war. But using Iran as a justification would be disingenuous and even dangerous. It would be almost as irresponsible as the trumped-up intelligence that Obama’s predecessor used to drum up support for the Iraq war a decade ago.

Tehran’s strategic outlook is indeed informed by American responses to chemical weapons usage; however, the relevant precedent lies not with recent events in Syria but in the history of U.S. involvement (or lack thereof) in Iraq. For better or worse, Iran’s view of international law and norms with respect to weapons of mass destruction was crystallized in the 1980s, when the international community barely bothered to protest Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against his own population, as well as on the battlefield with Iran. The West explicitly and deliberately looked the other way, and in some cases facilitated the barbarism. For Iran, this was a formative experience that shaped its Hobbesian approach to the world and its interactions with world powers and international institutions such as the United Nations. As a hard-line Iranian newspaper wrote several years ago, “Our world is not a fair one and everyone gets as much power as he can, not for his power of reason or the adaptation of his request to the international laws, but by his bullying.”

As a result of this history, the American debate over military strikes against Assad doesn’t factor into U.S. credibility with Iranian leaders on nonproliferation; it merely confirms their long-held paranoia that Washington is determined to undermine Iran and will use any means to destabilize the broader Middle East for its own nefarious purposes. Consider, for example, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s commentary in a speech last week, when he argued that the United States "want[s] this region to belong to them and for [its] authority to be established here. This is what they are after. In the recent spats over Syria, we can see the new excuse they've put forward on the use of chemical weapons. With their deceptions, they pretend as if their motive is a humane one. Who in this world doesn't know that this claim is a false one? There is no doubt that what doesn't count for the American politicians are these very humane aspects.…These are the same people who saw the massive chemical attack by Saddam in this region, whether the one in Halabja or the one in our cities such as Sardasht, and didn't say a word."

Such mistrust is hardly limited to Iran’s hard-liners. The terrors of the chemical weapons attacks that Iranian soldiers endured during the war with Iraq are deeply ingrained in the public’s memory; the scars of that episode contribute significantly to its antipathy toward the United States. Even Iran’s pragmatists, who have recently returned to power with the June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, see the debate surrounding the U.S. intervention in Syria as dangerously provocative. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a highly regarded diplomat, whose prior service as Iran’s representative to the United Nations has given him unparalleled access to the Washington establishment (including to many senior Obama administration officials), responded to Obama’s Tuesday speech with a real-time tweet that questioned Washington’s commitment to international law.

Contra Ross’ presumption that Rouhani, Zarif, and other Iranians who are seeking a deal on the nuclear issue would gain traction from a U.S. strike on Syria, Iran’s embattled moderates have made clear that intensifying regional turmoil has always benefitted the regime’s hard-liners. One need only look to the political trends within Iran in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to appreciate how damaging a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East would be for the nascent hopes of diplomacy with Tehran today: when a reformist president was ridiculed for his efforts to promote détente, a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, managed to seize the political imagination and the presidency.

The fact that Washington now seems to prefer a prospective diplomatic resolution, engineered by another Syrian ally, Russia, complicates Iran's game of chess -- but it ways that are beneficial to American interests.

From the outset of the conflict in 2011, Iran has been hedging on Syria. This has been very much Assad’s war, and Iran has been slow to expand its assistance to the embattled regime. In recent weeks, the Iranian debate on Syria has even produced public acknowledgements that Damascus is no longer the ally it once was. Indeed, as Assad comes to control less territory, and as it becomes clear that there is little prospect of a stable, unified Syria in the near future under any leadership, the Iranians have looked to what comes next and have tried to ensure that they position themselves so that they can retain their influence over and access to their client groups, such as Hezbollah. A U.S. strike would only entrench their commitment to preserving Assad and undercut possibilities for diplomacy in other arenas.

After all, Rouhani was elected to rescue Iran from its ruinous spat with the United States over its nuclear ambitions. He and those around him are sophisticated enough to appreciate that this objective will be much further out of their reach if all parties get tied up in a U.S.-Syrian military engagement. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Tehran to insulate its assets and personnel in Syria from any military strike against the regime, and it would be even more challenging for Iran’s president to restrain the hard-liners in Iran’s security establishment from responding with force. So it comes as no surprise that, in hopes of advancing his mandate to rehabilitate Iran’s place in the world, Iran’s pragmatic president has thus been trying to modulate Iran's public posture on Syria.

Russia’s diplomatic option may temporarily salvage Tehran’s investments in Assad and Syria. And perhaps that would disappoint those hoping to use intervention in Syria to set Tehran back on its heels. Still, the presumption that only a robust show of U.S. force in Syria can dissuade Iran from weapons of mass destruction is false. Using diplomacy to defang Assad would boost Iran’s readiness to work with the international community on the nuclear question.

Just as former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani did during the 1991 war to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Rouhani and those around him are attempting to chart a somewhat neutral course. In the best-case scenario, this would include free-wheeling condemnations from the pulpit and from hard-liners, but little retaliatory response on the ground. But by using Iran as a pretext for military action in Syria, the United States would undercut the moderates and ultimately undermine the prospects for diplomacy with Tehran. For all the obstacles and potential flaws, working with the Russians to neutralize Assad’s worst weapons offers one implicit advantage. It preserves the best possibility for containing a threat that is at least as urgent as the Syrian regime’s brutality toward its own people: the Iranian nuclear program.

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  • SUZANNE MALONEY is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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