Now that the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons is nearly fully implemented, and the deal to slow down Iran’s nuclear program is underway, it should be noted that both those deals were never about controlling the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction, but rather about preserving the regimes that would use them. The Assad regime in Syria and the Ayatollah regime in Iran both came to the respective negotiations tables with one goal in mind: preserve their regimes. The chemical weapons in Syria and the nuclear program in Iran only mattered to the extent they could contribute to preserving their regime.
When Assad the elder amassed a significant stockpile of chemical weapons, he was concerned about a variety of potential threats to his regime. He, as well as his son, was never under any illusions about the stability and legitimacy of the regime. As rulers of an artificially-created state, ruled by a ten percent Alawite minority, which is considered heretical by almost all Muslims, they knew they had to rely on brute force, repression, and butchery (in which the son has outdone father), to secure their rule and the privileges of their sect. The chemical weapons were a means to that end.
Then, as a result of a haphazard chain of events, Assad the younger faced the danger that his rule would be destabilized by an outside-led American intervention, just as he seemed to be gaining ground against the opposition forces. When he was given the option of averting this intervention by getting rid of the stockpile of chemical weapons under his control he faced no real dilemma. If his regime could be secured by ridding the country of chemical weapons, then the weapons were to prove themselves useful, as intended, for securing the regime, but in neutralizing, rather than using them.
Those who were skeptical that Assad the younger would keep his side of the agreement failed to understand his end goal: Assad, with an astute sense for power and survival, understood what the West refuses to admit, that once the chemical weapons were gotten rid of, he would be free to continue his butchery and the threat to his regime would be lifted. Indeed, as it became clear that Assad was as serious about getting rid of the weapons as his father was about getting them – both for the same purpose of securing their regime – he (and his country) were left alone.
On this point, the Ayatollah regime of Iran is no different. The regime entered serious negotiations with the West this month regarding its nuclear program with the same goal of self-preservation. The Islamic republic is skating on thin ice, even if a little thicker than the Assad regime. It has already brutally quashed the green revolution and has been reaching the limits of brutal repression as an effective means of regime preservation. While the regime in Tehran might want to look to North Korea as a model of deceiving the West on its nuclear program, the people of Iran cannot endure the kind of repression that the North Korean dictator has wrought on his people.
The Ayatollahs in Tehran understand that they need to seek other models of survival. In doing so, they looks towards the Soviet Union as what to avoid, and to China as what can be achieved. The Soviet Union, from this regime’s perspective, introduced too much openness, which caused the USSR to quickly collapse. China, after Tiananmen, was able to introduce a slow, controlled form of economic openness, combined with continued social repression that preserved intact the rule of the Communist Party. For the Ayatollah regime following the Chinese path to regime preservation, means that it desperately needs sanction relief and the ability to gradually open up its economy to trade.
To preserve their regime, the Ayatollahs might be willing to go far, probably much further than anyone among the negotiators believes – this being the point that Prime Minister Netanyahu insists upon. What the West fails to understand in the Iranian case is that the nuclear program is only valuable to the extent that it helps secure the regime, and if due to the strict sanctions regime which prevents the pursuit of gradual economic openness as a means of regime preservation, it becomes less of an asset, it could conceivably be traded away. Indeed, if the regime felt that the economic pressure and the credible threat of military intervention were to threaten its very survival, it might, just as Assad did with the chemical weapons, go as far as give up the entire nuclear program altogether.
The Assad and Ayatollah regimes might be cruel, brutal, messianic, repressive, and bloody, but when it comes to their own survival, they make rational calculations. As the West embarks on negotiations for a permanent agreement with the Ayatollah regime, it must not lose sight of this very basic idea: what’s at stake in the negotiations for the regime is its very survival, not its nukes.