President Obama called for military action in Syria and then stood down when strongman Bashar al-Assad promised to give up his chemical weapons. He did not use cruise missiles when Assad crossed his "red line." But this was not a sign of toothlessness telegraphed to Syria's patron, Iran—another state developing weapons of mass destruction—as some Monday-morning quarterbacks insist. Quite the opposite. Obama's narrow goal had always been to remove chemical weapons from the equation. The real message sent by diplomacy with Syria is that Washington is not secretly aiming for regime change. The move says to Tehran: Forgo your nuclear-weapon dreams and, while other unsavory behavior will be condemned, you will be left alone.
"If we get the chemical-weapons deal in Syria, and acknowledge tacitly [that] Assad will remain in power, that is a useful model for Iran," says Jon Wolfsthal, a former National Security Council director for nonproliferation. Of course, the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected with a mandate to solve his nation's economic woes, which is another impetus for negotiation with the West. But Obama helped his case by signaling that "they don't need weapons of mass destruction and nuclear deterrent. And by trading it away, they might get the legitimacy they crave," says Wolfsthal, now deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
This approach involved difficult policy trade-offs. The Syria deal sparked criticism from defense hawks who believe Obama let Assad escape military punishment for his crimes. Similarly, a deal with Iran may mean ignoring past violations and human-rights abuses. But the United States has often inked deals with rogue nations, prioritizing its national security over punishing bad behavior—with mostly positive results, especially when coupled with economic pressure and the threat of force, both still on the table in Syria and Iran.
In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq over its purported possession of weapons of mass destruction. Suddenly, Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi wanted to rejoin the international community, apparently realizing his own arsenal and clandestine nuclear program were not worth the potential costs. "The U.S. willingness to negotiate sent the same signal the Syria deal did: 'We will not try to overthrow your regime; we're narrowing our demands,' " says Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Qaddafi was implicitly allowed to continue his repressive dictatorship, and the model worked until he began slaughtering his own people during the Arab Spring.
Washington turned on him, which could worry rogue nations looking for security by giving up nonconventional arsenals. But realistically, American policymakers aren't exactly jonesing to use military force in support of humanitarian goals, especially in high-stakes countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria. "Washington tends to hold its nose and deal with regimes that it finds distasteful if those regimes are willing to abide by agreements that neutralize their most threatening behavior," says Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor and the author of How Enemies Become Friends. War weariness at home also pushes a president to choose deals over principles.
Myanmar is another case in point. The military junta was working to acquire nuclear and missile technology at the same time it was repressing democracy, presenting the U.S. government with a serious proliferation concern, according to Wolfsthal. So when the country wanted its good standing back, Washington traded financial and diplomatic carrots for disarmament and political reform. Myanmar signed the Additional Protocol, the gold standard for nuclear inspections, after a short visit by Obama in 2012, and later the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The U.S. could have been a stickler and punished the junta for every illicit activity, but it compromised.
The same strategy can have beneficial results with allies. Some scientists in South Korea were discovered to be enriching uranium in 2000 in violation of the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards system. Rather than seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution or condemning the country, Washington worked with Seoul to shut down the program. It did.
Military force can be more coercive in getting adversaries to comply when it's still just a threat. Despite Beltway dillydallying, Russia and Syria both appeared to believe that Washington would strike before agreeing to compromise. Bombing would not have stripped Assad of his chemical weapons or even his ability to use them. Similarly, it would not be easy for the U.S. to simply bomb Iran out of the nuke business without risk of retaliation. Even a Syria strike might have forced Iran (which also despises chemical weapons, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war) to abandon its recent outreach toward the United States.
So, in theory, Tehran could privately detail its violations and work to correct them if Washington takes force and sanctions off the table. Yes, that might prompt other states to cheat on their nonproliferation commitments until they get caught. "But, in the end, if you put in front of the president of the United States a chance to end Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions as long as he forgoes punishment, he's probably going to be interested," Wolfsthal says. And sure enough, in an interview with The Washington Post's David Ignatius this week, Rouhani said he's happy to "turn to other issues"—just as soon as soon as "the nuclear file is settled."