For the last year, Secretary of State John Kerry has worked and worked to get Russia to help end Syria's civil war. He has cajoled. He has sniped. He has spent countless hours in meetings and on the phone with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. And he pretty much has nothing to show for it.
This point was driven home Tuesday when Russia announced it had started bombing missions from a base inside Iran.
It was the latest in a series of humiliations for Kerry. As soon as the Iran nuclear deal was concluded last July, the Russians and Iranians began plotting a surge for Syria on behalf of the dictator, Bashar al-Assad. As Kerry made plans for talks in Geneva, the Russians set up air bases in Syria. Once their campaign started, they bombed U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. In June, Russian planes bombed a U.S. and British special operations base near the Syrian border.
But the announcement of the bombing from Iran stings Kerry the most. Kerry himself, only a year ago, told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had told him after the completion of the nuclear deal, "I am now empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues."
Now the Iranians can't stop working with the Russians about regional issues. Meanwhile, Iran keeps detaining and arresting American dual-nationals, testing missiles and threatening American allies.
The Russian flights out of Iran should not come as a surprise. The American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project observed what appeared to be Russian aircraft at an Iranian base back in December.
But on Tuesday the Russians made it official and announced that its Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter-bombers had taken off from the Hamadan airfield, about 200 miles west of Tehran.
None of these developments are likely to persuade Kerry to end his quest for a Syria deal with the Russians. And while this may seem to meet a definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result), there is an opportunity now for the secretary of state to advance U.S. interests.
It will require Kerry to face some hard truths about Iran. He needs to stop thinking of Zarif and Rouhani as moderates he must empower against their country's hardliners. Instead, he should see Russian bombers in Iran as a chance to undermine his old negotiating partners and turn them against one another.
This sounds like a long shot, and in many ways it is. But it's unprecedented for Iran to allow a foreign military to operate on its soil. Iran's constitution, following the 1979 revolution, specifically prohibits this kind of thing. It's one of the reasons why revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which they saw as a den of spies that secretly controlled their country.
Hence Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Ali Shamkhani, spoke about the Russian announcement euphemistically, telling the Fars News Agency that Iran and Russia had an agreement to share facilities, not an agreement for the Russian Air Force to occupy a military base.
"There are a lot of optics the Iranians have to worry about because of this," Matthew McInnis, a former Defense Intelligence Agency Iran expert and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told me Tuesday. "They don't like to admit the Russians are doing this right now." He added, "The Iranian leadership will have to spin this in a way that doesn't look like the country is inviting foreign forces on its soil, which it has not had since 1979."
Kerry should exploit this. He could deliver a speech at the U.N. General Assembly congratulating Iran on finally getting over its inordinate fear of imperialism and seeing the value of a great power's military generosity. The State Department could produce Farsi materials on the 19th-century treaties of Gulistan and Turmenchay, in which the Russian empire humiliated the Persians.
This public diplomacy should also be backed up with a campaign of leaks and misinformation about current U.S. diplomacy with Russia. As anyone who has ever read through the Twitter feed of Iran's supreme leader knows, the regime is a sucker for a good conspiracy theory. U.S. diplomats should try to get the Iranians to believe that Russia at any moment could cut a separate deal with Washington. It's not so far-fetched. As I reported in June, the Russians have a side deal in Syria with Israel.
The best news about all of this is that Kerry really doesn't have to change much of his outward behavior. He can still try and try to get Russia to work with him on a political deal for Syria. Such a deal remains a long shot. But with a little luck, this charade could blow apart a burgeoning Iranian-Russian alliance and perhaps even turn the Iranian regime upon itself. It's no less crazy than Kerry's current plan to end the war in Syria.
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