How the United States responds to Syria’s use of chemical weapons will send a message not just to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also to Iran on nuclear weapons, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on Meet the Press.
In explaining President Obama’s commitment to a limited military strike in Syria to host David Gregory, McDonough called the mission an “opportunity to be bold with the Iranians:”
MCDONOUGH: How Congress chooses to answer that question will be listened to very clearly in Damascus, but not just in Damascus. Also in Tehran, and among Lebenese Hezbollah.
GREGORY: You’re saying look, if we don’t do this, Iran which you believe is developing a nuclear weapon, looks at that and says, aha, the United States can be trifled with.
MCDONOUGH: I think it’s very difficult to know exactly what is happening in Tehran but what we do know is to communicate with them we have to be very clear, very forthright. This is an opportunity to be both with the Iranians. To make sure that they understand that they do not have greater freedom of action, they do not have greater operating space to pursue a nuclear weapon which would destabilize that entire region, threaten our friends and allies, and ultimately threaten us.
Some prominent conservatives agree with McDonough on this point. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said this week that doing nothing would “embolden Iran.” And on Friday, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said “Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons is a proxy for Iran’s ability to move ahead unimpeded in its acquisition of nuclear weapons.” Kristol went much further, however, calling on Republicans to move forward with an authorization for war with Iran soon after the Syrian strike. The Obama administration has made clear that this mission is limited to Syria, and has said nothing about authorizing force against Iran.
In fact, McDonough explained that the reason Obama went to Congress for permission to act is so that Congress could ensure the mission remains limited and that it does not “creep.” When asked if the strike would be more about Iran than Syria, McDonough emphasized the importance of drawing a red line with every country on international weapons prohibitions. “We have to make sure for the sake of our guys that we reinforce this prohibition” on chemical weapons, he said.
But CNN’s Candy Crowley questioned why one Syrian strike would more effectively deter Iran than past military interventions in another interview with McDonough Sunday morning, saying, “I am confused by this idea that somehow the U.S. backing up words with a missile strike into Syria sends a message to Iran. We went to Iraq with more than 100,000 troops. We took out a leader. It didn’t affect their behavior at all. Why would a missile strike in Syria do so?”
The increasing references to hostility with Iran come at an interesting moment, as the government appears to be rejecting some of the bellicose rhetoric of previous leaders, at least on Twitter. A series of tweets from Iranian officials wished Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews celebrating the new year and distanced Iran from former President Mahmoud Amadinejad’s Holocaust denial, in a “display of tolerance” that one veteran Hill watcher said “will go down in history.”