PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry, February 2015

Frederic Hof, formerly the State Department envoy for Syria, writes for the Atlantic Council:

Head counting in Congress indicates that President Barack Obama is closing in on veto-proof numbers as he seeks to implement the Iranian nuclear agreement. Indeed, he may well acquire the requisite number of Senate supporters (41) to prevent a resolution of disapproval from even getting a vote in the upper house. Thus, it appears that something worse than the agreement itself — US isolation on the Iran nuclear matter — may be averted. Still, the costs of pursuing and concluding a one-off nuclear transaction without reference to Tehran’s corrosive regional behavior and impact are high; perhaps prohibitively, and perhaps indefinitely.

The administration’s diplomatic strategy with Iran has been one of putting all of its eggs in the nuclear basket. Iran’s support for war crimes in Syria and its blatant encouragement of political sectarianism in Iraq midwifed the birth of the Islamic State. Yet the Obama administration elected to give Iran a bye, even to the extent of declining to provide Syrian civilians a modicum of protection from Iranian-supported Assad regime collective punishment and mass murder.

One theory of the case, something articulated repeatedly by President Obama as he tries to keep Congress from rejecting the nuclear deal, is that the only alternative is war. To the extent one actually believes this to be true, then a single-minded, single-track sprint to a nuclear deal — one that puts to the side all other contentious issues and even gives Iran free-rein — would make sense. The problem with the theory is that it is evidence-free. Tehran and Washington have avoided war for the entire 36-year life of the Islamic Republic notwithstanding a hostage crisis, mass casualty terror attacks, a civilian airplane downing, and the absence of a nuclear agreement. There is no evidence that Iran would sprint to a bomb if left unconstrained. It has done quite well regionally without provoking the kind of widespread regional nuclear proliferation that could cramp its style.

A corollary to the faulty theory has been that a nuclear agreement faithfully executed would, over time, empower Iranian “moderates” and change fundamentally the course of Tehran’s foreign policy. Again, the problem with this assumption is evidence, or the lack thereof. As Pulitzer Prize winner Roy Gutman reports from Tehran, Iran’s political class and national security intelligentsia fully support their country’s deadly intervention in Syria. Indeed, US-educated Iranians speaking in Track Two settings have repeatedly upheld Iran’s full support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the importance of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as vital to the effective delivery of that support.

Without denouncing the nuclear agreement, therefore, it is more than fair to regret that it was pursued as a stand-alone transaction accompanied by a decision to look the other way when confronted head-on by Iran’s regional depredations. Not only did this course of action clear the way for Tehran to do its worst, but it was probably unnecessary even for an administration hungering for a nuclear deal. Yes, the Supreme Leader and his followers — “moderates” and “hard-liners” alike — would have been enraged by any US attempt to mitigate mass murder in Syria. Would their rage have produced a decision to walk away from sanctions relief and direct foreign investment? Or would they have seen Washington’s push-back in Syria in the same light as their own facilitation of mass murder: a fact of life to be dealt with while keeping one’s eyes on the prize?

The results of single-tracking are clear: left entirely to its own devices, Iran has facilitated chaos in Syria and Iraq while convincing Gulf Arab states in particular that Tehran’s star is on the rise and the American sun is setting. Now Washington feels obliged to reassure partners — starting with Saudi Arabia — that this is not the case. The reassurance is, in the view of some observers, costly.

In an August 30 piece in The Financial Times, for example, Roula Khalaf argues that not only does Washington feel obliged to facilitate an air campaign in Yemen whose effects on civilians are deplorable, but the administration also bends over backwards to support repressive regimes in Egypt and Bahrain enjoying Riyadh’s favor.

As Khalaf put it, “Reassurance, however, comes at a price. In the case of the Iran deal, the administration has allowed the costs to rise unnecessarily, acquiescing to actions that threaten long-term US interests. Indeed, the Arab autocratic order is back in force only a few years after popular revolts swept the region. Security crackdowns are building a new chapter of exclusion and extremism, but soliciting no more than a muted reaction from Washington.”

No doubt Washington’s regional partners require reassurance in the wake of an extraordinarily damaging single-track diplomatic approach to Iran, one that elevated the nuclear matter to iconic status while Iran was gutting all prospects for legitimate governance in Iraq and Syria, an exercise in sectarian aggression from which the Islamic State has emerged as the principal beneficiary. As necessary as it is, however, that reassurance need not consist of unqualified support for an air campaign in Yemen or grudging acceptance of repression in Egypt, with crackdowns that exceed those of Hosni Mubarak.

When King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud comes to Washington, President Obama can confide in him how the United States intends to push back against Iranian-abetted, Islamic State-friendly, Assad regime mass murder in Syria. Syria is the epicenter of regional concerns about Iranian aggression and the perception of US accommodation to it. The President can offer American good offices to resolve the Yemen crisis peacefully and he can articulate to King Salman his strong reservations about the practical effects of repressive policies in Egypt.

It is Syria that counts. Yes, Iran will resent any move to throw sand into the gears of its client’s mass murder machine. But continued Administration avoidance of the abomination that is Syria will raise the reassurance tax elsewhere and ensure that Syria will hemorrhage human beings in all directions for decades for come. Indeed, this could be the ultimate prohibitive price for having pursued a single-minded strategy aimed at something other than the heart of the matter.