Diplomacy Takes Center Stage In Iran And Syria Conflicts

Sep 20, 2013
Originally published on September 20, 2013 2:21 pm

Is there a “Nixon in China” moment shaping up with Iran and President Obama? That’s what the leader of the global civil society group Avaaz thinks, after recent news the U.S. and Iran are moving swiftly to find a diplomatic solution to Iran’s controversial nuclear weapons program.

That comes just as the international body to prohibit chemical weapons reported that Syria has sent in an “initial” outline of the country’s chemical arsenal, a move required by the U.S.- Russia brokered agreement that Syria give up all its chemical weapons.

The turn to diplomacy on both of these fronts comes suddenly, and just two weeks after Obama asked Congress to support a strike against Iran’s ally Syria over Syria’s chemical weapons.

White House officials conceded to The New York Times that they got this moment in the messiest way possible, but it is also a “head spinning” shift of fortunes for President Obama.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Well, on the foreign policy side in Washington, there's been an abrupt turn from talk of bombing to talk of talking in both Syria and Iran. Syria turned over an initial list of its chemical arsenal today, and today more signs that U.S. and Iranian officials are moving to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's controversial nuclear weapons program.

The newly elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, published an op-ed in the Washington Post today offering collaboration on mutual problems. Yesterday, he spoke with NBC. The leader of the global NGO Avaaz, which aims to foster civil society, thinks there's a Nixon-in-China moment shaping up with Iran and President Obama.

But the Israeli government calls the Iranian offer fraudulent, saying Iran is spinning the media so it can keep spinning nuclear centrifuges. And skeptics in Congress and the Pentagon say the U.S. could find itself mired in long negotiations that would lead to no real changes in both Iran and Syria.

So we've caught David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, on his way into a diplomatic meeting. And David, you quote an American diplomat saying this is all head-spinning.

DAVID SANGER: It is head-spinning, and it's head-spinning because just two weeks ago, the entire country, and of course Washington, was captivated by the question of would we do Tomahawk missile strikes on Syria with no apparent strategy about what would happen the day after those Tomahawk missile strikes.

Now I think largely through luck and after a very messy process, the president's in a much better place in Syria, where they've got deadlines to announce what their stockpiles of chemical weapons are and then lead inspectors to those locations. We have no idea if that's going to work, but at least that would provide something of a long-term deterrent if it did work.

With Iran, what you've got is the fruits of five years of really severe sanctions on the country that have finally had a political effect that have led to President Rouhani's election and now these overtures to the United States.

YOUNG: And this is President Hassan Rouhani. There has been talk for weeks now that he might be more open to conversation with the U.S. Catch us up, what is the message the Iranians are truly sending? And why else is this happening now?

SANGER: Well, we don't know why they are sending it, but President Obama wrote a letter to President Rouhani right after Rouhani's election, congratulated him and said, look, the United States is open to direct negotiations. And then he also said the United States is also willing over time to lift sanctions.

He didn't say what the price of that would be, and my guess is that if there is a stumbling block here, it's that the Iranians are going to have sticker shock when they discover just how much of nuclear infrastructure they have built the U.S. would require them to dismantle.

That said, I think the United States, while it will not admit it, is perfectly willing to allow the Iranians to have some face-saving amount of enrichment capability to produce nuclear fuel, as long as it is not such a large capability that the Iranians would be free to bring about what's called breakout, which is to say a very short run to building enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more. How much might what has happened in Syria also be impacting Iran? We're thinking of President Obama speaking in the last couple of weeks, always having some almost warm comments about Iran, how, you know, he understands that Iran might also be nervous about chemical weapons in Syria because Iranians had been gassed by the Iraqis, almost making overtures in that way in his talks. How much is the chemical weapon use in Syria maybe also impacting Iran?

SANGER: First, of course, Syria has been a critical ally of Iran and particularly of the Iranian military. On the other hand, there is no country whose people are more fascinated by America and in some ways pro-American than the Iranians in the Middle East. And if you go talk to young Iranians, they want everything about American culture, they want everything about American style, and they want to be able to come to the United States to study.

None of that is possible while sanctions are in effect. And so the political pressures on the government to get those sanctions lifted are pretty high. The strategy all along has been to make the argument that the nuclear program isn't worth the huge cost to the Iranian economy, and that has not sunk in to the Iranian leadership until perhaps lately.

Now the question here is how much room does Rouhani have because the decision-maker here is still the same old decision-maker, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There was a deal that was put together, a tentative one in 2009, and when it went back to Tehran, the supreme leader killed it.

YOUNG: Is Iran also looking over at Russia and thinking, well, if Russia's going to fold a little on Syria, maybe we ought to get with the program?

SANGER: They could be, but the Iranians are not as dependent on Russia as Syria is. If Iran can get the sanctions lifted, then they have oil revenue flowing again. Remember their oil revenue is down to less than half of what it was. Their currency has crashed. They've got a source of revenue if sanctions can get lifted that the Syrians could never dream about.

And, you know, there are - they are a real and dynamic society that since the revolution has basically been suppressed. And Henry Kissinger had a great line years ago. He said Iran has to decide whether it's a country or a revolution. And for the past 30 years, it's been a revolution. Rouhani seems to be stretching the possibility that it may be interested again in becoming a country.

YOUNG: David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, by the way, his book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power," is just out in paperback. He's running into a meeting, so David, we really appreciate your time. Thank you.

SANGER: Thank you, Robin.


And another story we're following, Germans go to the polls on Sunday. Angela Merkel is likely to win a third term, but there may be a change in the makeup of her coalition government. Details on that coming up later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We're back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.