The Russian-brokered plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international supervision could nudge Tehran and Washington into co-operating on finding ways to end the Syrian civil war.
Besides staving off US missile strikes, the deal buys valuable time to secure an even bigger prize – resolving the decade-old confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Barack Obama, the US president, confirmed on Sunday that he had exchanged letters with Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, but did not divulge the contents. Iran’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that the correspondence included White House congratulations on Mr Rouhani’s election. The epistolary diplomacy follows reports in US and Iranian media that Tehran and Washington are moving behind the scenes towards historic direct talks.
Mr Obama made clear that there was a diplomatic opening not only over Syria but also over the nuclear question. He said his approach to Syria — diplomacy backed by the threat of military action — was a potential model for negotiating over Iran’s nuclear programme.
But, he warned, Iran should avoid thinking that the US would not launch a military strike in response to Tehran’s nuclear programme just because it has not attacked Syria.
“I think that what the Iranians understand is that, the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Mr Obama said in an interview with ABC television. “On the other hand, what they [Iran] should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
Mr Rouhani on Monday welcomed the chemical weapons deal, saying the US’s new emphasis on diplomacy could help “return stability” to Syria. At the same time he urged the US to quit its military presence in the Arabian Gulf.
“You have come to the region uninvited – you leave and then you will see that the problems in the region will be resolved,” he said in an address to Revolutionary Guards commanders.
Iran’s foreign ministry on Tuesday also denounced Mr Obama for keeping the “threat” of military force on the table to coerce Tehran into curbing its nuclear activities.
Behind the tough talk from both sides, however, each seems to be reaching out to the other.
“There’s a change in tone in Washington – hints that it’s now open to accepting Iranian participation in ending the Syrian crisis,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iran diplomacy. “This is necessary to end the Syrian civil war … And if the Syria issue gets Iran and the US to talk directly to each other, that will definitely help the nuclear talks.”
Conversely, the nuclear negotiations could be undermined if Damascus reneges on the chemical disarmament deal and triggers punitive US strikes on Syria, a key Iranian ally that enables Tehran to project its power in the Arab world.
This would play into the hands of Mr Rouhani’s hardline rivals, who are deeply mistrustful of Washington and argue that the US’s main goal in threatening the Syrian regime is to weaken the Islamic republic.
Mr Rouhani is eager to reboot stalled nuclear negotiations with six world powers, including the US, which are expected to resume after the next week’s meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. The Iranian and US presidents are due to address the assembly on the same day.
US officials say there are no plans for them to meet, but observers do not rule out the possibility of an informal if orchestrated encounter in the corridors of the UN. It would be the first such meeting between an American and Iranian leader since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
Mr Rouhani was elected in an upset landslide victory over conservative rivals in June with promises to secure relief from international sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear programme.
He does not want the Syrian crisis scuttling his efforts, so can be expected to press President Bashar Al Assad to honour the chemical disarmament deal.
Even before the poison gas attack in Damascus last month that triggered the disarmament plan, there were signs of division within the Iranian regime about the strategic value of continuing to support Mr Al Assad.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, castigated Damascus earlier this month. “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused,” he said.
And on Monday, Mr Rouhani said Iran would accept anyone elected by the Syrian people as ruler, even if that is not Mr Al Assad.
Tehran also has a genuine abhorrence of chemical weapons and has vociferously condemned their use in Syria. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq subjected Iran to the worst chemical weapon attacks since the First World War, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians while the West turned a blind eye.
Mr Obama said last week that the Russian plan “may have a chance of success” because “Syria’s allies, like Iran, detest chemical weapons” and it may be that Mr Al Assad is “under pressure from them as well”.
Although on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, Iran shares an interest with the US and its Arab rivals in ensuring that militants affiliated to Al Qaeda, who are spearheading the battle against the Assad regime, do not come to power.
For these reasons and more, many Iran experts argue that Tehran should have a seat at the long-mooted Geneva 2 talks to resolve the Syrian crisis. Saudi Arabia and hawkish US politicians oppose Iranian participation, insisting that Iran, as part of the problem, cannot be part of the solution.
But, said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author based in New York who knows many of the key players in Washington and Tehran, “if you want to solve a problem, then by definition you have to talk to the people you think are part of the problem”. Iran “was probably instrumental in getting Assad to agree to the Russian deal”.
Mr Obama on Sunday raised the prospect of Iran getting involved in the broader talks on Syria. That would be a wise move, argued a western diplomat who has served in Tehran. “Iran has resources, people on the ground and influence in Syria,” the envoy said. “You can’t ignore them.”
Moreover, he added: “You can’t ignore the parallels from 2001 when Iran was instrumental in forging the compromises that led to the formation of a new government in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks.”