by Tomás Aramburu and Dan Solomon
The last two months have been chaotic in the Middle East. In August, President Barack Obama advocated for a strike on Syria, which dissipated under overwhelming public opposition and a Russian-brokered plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons. In September, the United Nations General Assembly’s meeting started with historic diplomacy between Iran and the United States, culminating in a phone call between the countries’ leaders for the first time since 1979.
While international cooperation seems to be succeeding, there are still major attempts to undermine diplomacy by those interested in maintaining threats on Syria and Iran. Such proponents call for a strike on Syria to preserve U.S. credibility as Obama had previously set a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons. They claim that failing to retaliate would signal to the rest of the world, including Iran, that America does not capitalize on its threats. Furthermore, they argue that Obama’s threat of force pushed Assad to agree to relinquish his chemical weapons.
Obama’s goal in threatening Assad into submission was not an effort to save Syrian lives, nor did it entail checking Assad’s power. Even after a diplomatic solution began to unfold, Obama claimed that he reserved the right to strike Syria in order to “defend American security interests.” In his speech to the U.N., Obama spoke of protecting “the free flow of energy from the region.” He later added in an ABC interview, “My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck to think we won’t strike Iran.” In essence, striking Syria would be more about threatening Iran and displaying American dominance than punishing the use of chemical weapons.
First of all, let us not be deceived into believing that Iran is a merciless enemy with its sights on Israel or the U.S. Iran is no longer under the control of the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but rather the newly-elected and more moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani wrote a moving Op-Ed in the Washington Post, published on Sept. 19. He expressed Iran’s interest in diplomacy and strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons. He denounced the idea of an American strike on Syria, saying, “The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism.”
While a strike on Assad’s regime may establish American military superiority, it will certainly not even begin to address the major underlying issues. Rouhani advocated for compromises, even regarding his country’s nuclear program. He wrote optimistically, “But to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher. Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.” Obama’s opportunity to greatly improve diplomatic relations throughout the Middle East is completely undermined by his threats of striking Syria.
Without a doubt, weapons of mass destruction are dangerous in the hands of Syria, Iran or any other nation (including the U.S.). The best solution to any of these problems would be a WMD-free zone throughout the entire Middle East. These zones exist in other regions of the world (including the entire Southern Hemisphere); since 1974, the U.N. has worked to try to set the groundwork for the creation of such a zone in the Middle East.
Rouhani expressed Iran’s desire for a WMD-free zone at the U.N., saying, “Urgent, practical steps toward the establishment of such a zone are necessary. The international community has to redouble efforts in support of the establishment of this zone.” Similarly, in 2003, Syria proposed the creation of such a zone as a member of the Security Council.
Israel is the only country in the region that is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it is the only Middle Eastern nation to currently possess nuclear weapons. If the U.S. and Israel would support the proposal for the WMD-free zone, its prospects would be greatly improved. Israel would have to give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, but in doing so, it would impede Iran and the Arab states from developing WMDs.
U.S. policy in the Middle East has shown no interest in diplomacy, but has instead operated through unilateral threats, violence and intimidation. Over the last decade, the U.S. government has invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, threatened and strongly sanctioned Iran, used drones to bomb the entire region without any respect for the innocent below and supported Israel’s repression of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Threatening the use of force on yet more countries is not only dangerous but extremely counterproductive toward creating a more peaceful and secure world.
Many will continue saying that diplomacy cannot work and only American threats of violence can achieve peace in Syria and control Iran. However, it is important that we as Americans reject the idea that coercion through violence and threat, is synonymous with international cooperation. If we accept the notion that our belligerence and aggression is more just, moral or righteous than that of other countries, perpetual warfare will not end.
Today, Americans account for less than 5 percent of the world population, yet according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, our military accounts for 39 percent of global military spending. Given U.S. military power, the threats our president makes hold a lot of credence. Obama is correct when he says, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” The real question: is the ability to wage destructive war something to be proud of?
Obama has serious opportunities to diplomatically solve the crises in Syria, Iran and the entire Middle East with peaceful dialogue. However, there comes a line when his unilateral threats of violence make diplomacy impossible. This is the red line Obama should be careful not to cross.