The world has fundamentally changed since August 21. It's time for a fundamental change in U.S. policy towards Syria and Iran.
We were told by the government of Israel, the government of Saudi Arabia, and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee that it was absolutely essential that the United States strike Syria militarily to send a signal to Iran that the U.S. was willing to use force to confront Iran's nuclear program.
Congress and the American people have decisively rejected this argument.
As the New York Times noted following the President's speech in which he postponed indefinitely his push for Congressional authorization of a military strike in favor of diplomacy, the Obama Administration faced "implacable opposition to a strike in Syria in Congress and throughout the country"; a vote authorizing military action "was almost certain to lose" as "opposition to a strike was hardening" on Capitol Hill.
Those who set out to establish a precedent for a U.S. military attack on Iran got an unpleasant surprise: a set of precedents making a U.S. attack on Iran more difficult were established instead. This President or any other would have to come to Congress for authorization to strike Iran, as required by the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, and Congressional approval would be far from guaranteed. If this President or a future President tries to claim that he or she has the unilateral power to strike Iran without Congressional approval, we now know what we need to do to stop that. We need to get a bipartisan group of 192 Members of the House to tell the President, "the hell you do."
Congress and the American people did something unprecedented in our time: they stopped a war before it started by creating a near-certainty of Congressional rejection. The knowledge that this is possible can never be removed from public consciousness. It would take a McCarthyite purge of the institutions to do so, and such a purge is no longer possible, because opposition to the promiscuous use of military force has become too politically diverse. People can get on their soapboxes all day long about Citizens United, the military-industrial complex, and AIPAC. Despite these obstacles, democracy stopped a war.
Since the proposal to send "a signal of American resolve" to Iran by bombing Syria has spectacularly failed, it's time for a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
If we can talk to Russia about securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stocks, we can talk to Iran about securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stocks. Iran not only has a new President, but an entirely new crew of pragmatic, experienced, top diplomatic officials. No country on earth hates chemical weapons more than Iran. Could there be a better time to talk to Iran than when 1) Iran has just elected a new President who campaigned on a platform of engagement with the West and 2) AIPAC has just suffered a spectacular legislative defeat on the authorization of force?
If we can talk to Russia and Iran about securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stocks, we can talk to Russia and Iran about securing a ceasefire and negotiations to end Syria's civil war. Yes, ending Syria's civil war will be hard. Securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stocks will be hard. But neither of these goals will be accomplished or brought closer by the use of military force. Diplomacy and negotiations can accomplish these goals, and even if they don't accomplish these goals right away, diplomacy and negotiations will de-escalate the conflict and reduce the killing on the path to eliminating Syria's chemical weapons and ending the war.
If we can talk to Russia and Iran about securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stocks and about securing a ceasefire and negotiations to end Syria's civil war, we can talk to Russia and Iran about a deal on Iran's nuclear program that establishes détente between the U.S. and Iran.
Our too-close relationships to the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia and our lack of any relationship to the government of Iran are bringing us no end of trouble. Because we are too close to the government of Saudi Arabia, we didn't stop the crackdown on democracy activists in Bahrain. Because we are too close to the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, we didn't stop the military coup in Egypt and the subsequent massacres of anti-coup protesters. Because we are too close to the government of Saudi Arabia, we didn't stop them from pouring jihadists into Syria who commit atrocities. Because we don't have a relationship with the government of Iran, we haven't been able to leverage their influence to restrain the Syrian government from committing atrocities. Because we are too close to the government of Israel, we can't effectively pressure it to end its abuses of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
It's time to reset our relationships in the Middle East. We need to be able to relate to everyone, while being beholden to no-one.
There has never been a better time for real engagement with Iran, and an opportunity like the present may not come again. This is the moment we elected Barack Obama for in 2008. If not now, when?
If you agree, tell President Obama and Congress.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.