What does President Barack Obama share in common with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Given the fact that the two politicians clearly do not like each other personally and differ in background, style, and temperament, the question itself is a bit presumptuous. Yet, there are several obvious answers. Both are Harvard alumni. Both are savvy politicians in their own right. Both were democratically elected. Both head governments that are taking active steps to combat Islamic extremism. Both are committed to the defense of the State of Israel. One similarity, however, is sure to elude even the most attentive of foreign policy viewers: President Obama, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, appears hell-bent on starting a shooting war with Iran. The clearest evidence for this charge can be found in the Obama administration’s policy shift to provide lethal aid to anti-Assad rebels in Syria.
Skeptics will argue that there were a number of factors that led to this policy shift by the administration towards Syria. And they are right. These factors include: 1) the desire to make credible the (largely self-imposed) red line set forth by the president towards the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government in Syria, 2) the desire to enforce international norms that prohibit the use of such weapons, especially against civilian populations, 3) the desire to end the regional humanitarian crises that are being perpetuated by the ongoing civil war in Syria by hastening the demise of the Assad government, 4) the desire on the part of the administration to play the role of the “indispensible” ally to its partners in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar by supplementing their support of Sunni rebels in Syria, and 5) the desire to cement the concept of “responsibility to protect” as a valid and legitimate international norm.
Yet taken as a whole these reasons do not stand the test of scrutiny. Even a layperson can understand that arming the opposition rebels who have had a hand in perpetuating this humanitarian crisis will not bring this crisis to an end. If one truly wanted to bring the humanitarian crisis to an end one would expect to see either a strong diplomatic effort to broker a cease-fire between the Assad government and the rebels, or non-intervention by the outside world in the hopes that the Assad government would score a quick military victory over the rebels. Should the Assad government fall there is little reason to believe that the sectarian bloodletting would not continue and, with it increasing refugee outflows. Few things engineer humanitarian crises as do failed states. Make no mistake — Obama's policy has little regard for humanitarian concerns.
Instead what we see in the present Obama policy of providing lethal aid, and perhaps direct military assistance, to the rebels is an attempt to prolong the conflict with the end goal being the toppling of the Assad regime. And no nation in that region has as much a stake in the outcome of this conflict, not to mention in the preservation of the Assad government, as does the Islamic Republic of Iran.
By adopting this policy the Obama administration is sending a clear signal to the newly-elected Iranian President Hasan Rowhani: that Iran's days are numbered and that this administration is not interested, contrary to the conventional wisdom, of avoiding another conflict in the Persian Gulf.
The loss of Iran's most important regional ally, particularly at the hands of the U.S., portends badly for the international negotiations over that country’s nuclear program. Should it remain on its current trajectory (and we have no reason to assume it won't), President Obama’s Syria policy will provide further incentive for Iran to not only avoid making any serious concessions on its nuclear program but to also convert that program into a weapons program as soon as possible. In the past 10 years two non-nuclear-weapons states in the Islamic world, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (2003) and Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya (2011), have been overthrown by Western powers. As it now stands, Syria is in line to be the third. This has not gone unnoticed by Tehran. Furthermore, Washington’s treatment of states (Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) that possess nuclear weapons, especially Islamic ones (Pakistan actually possesses “Major Non-NATO-US-Ally Status”), has provided a clear lesson to Tehran of the benefits a nuclear-weapons program.
By attempting to forcibly deprive Iran of its most important regional ally in Syria, the Obama administration is actively exacerbating Iran’s sense of geo-political vulnerability. States that experience such vulnerabilities rarely surrender their domestic nuclear programs willingly. This means that, short of a firm shift in administration policy, the trajectory of present American foreign policy in the Middle East is a shooting war with Iran. Those first shots however are likely to be fired over the skies of Syria.