Could Iran continue its nuclear program in Syria?

Obama and Kerry discuss the Iran nuclear deal at the White House, September 10 2015. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Listening to President Obama and other supporters of the Iranian nuclear agreement, one might well be justified in thinking back to the ill-fated Maginot Line – one of the most ineffective security strategies used in Europe before World War II.

The Maginot Line was a defense strategy designed by the French after World War I to guard against invasion by Germany.

The Maginot Line did not work.

And now, it seems fair to ask – at least from the perspective of this law professor – whether the limitations and risks laid bare by this famous strategic misstep might also apply to the Iranian nuclear agreement, which we are confidently told will block Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.

Elaborate fortifications against Germany

The Maginot Line, 1938.

The Maginot Line had elaborate fortifications and even amenities such as air conditioning for troops stationed there. The architects of the line and the strategists who embraced the approach defended it on grounds that have an all-too-current ring. They were confident that the pathways to German invasion of France were foreclosed or sufficiently delayed so as to allow France time to mobilize and resist a prospective German invasion.

The Maginot Line had a strategic flaw that seems obvious in retrospect.

The French did not build fortifications on their border with neutral Belgium. When the German Nazis invaded France in World War II, they did not have to confront the Maginot Line: instead, they circumvented it, invading France through Belgium.

The Maginot Line, accordingly, has come to symbolize a myopic and naive policy.

Linking Iran and Syria

With that background, think about the Iranian strategy in the nuclear negotiations.

The Iranians have negotiated a settlement that largely keeps in place a nuclear infrastructure while restricting its use for a period of time. Iran’s nuclear program can be revived promptly once the limitations expire (or even before if Iran cheats). The US has agreed to what many consider to be a weak inspection regime. In other words, for a period of time, the tools to make a nuclear weapon will be barred to Iran, but Iran will retain the infrastructure to make use of those tools.

Now think about Syria. Iran has invested heavily in retaining in power the Assad regime, regarding Syria as a client state.

Why are Syria and the Assad regime so important to the Iranians?

Undoubtedly, there are regional interests at issue and Iranian influence in Syria can advance Iranian regional aspirations and hegemonic interests. But Iran’s dogged protection of the Assad regime and the protection of territorial areas of safety and control within Syria suggest that more may be at issue. Also worth noting is Iran’s and Syria’s reliance on Hezbollah, an Iranian client, as critical fighters in support of the Assad regime. This involvement of Hezbollah in Syria further reflects the priority that Iran assigns to retaining its influence in Syria.

Could Syria be Iran’s Belgium?

Just as the Germans in World War II marched through Belgium to invade France, thereby avoiding the purportedly blocked pathways to invasion represented by the Maginot Line, might the Iranians be locating or relocating prohibited nuclear development activity to Syria? After all, Syria has a tradition of developing and storing chemical weapons.

It would not be a stretch for Syria to serve as a location for the Iranian pursuit of activity otherwise precluded in Iran by the nuclear agreement. The Assad regime already has crossed a comparable bridge in its chemical warfare program. Nuclear development and storage activity by Syria on behalf of Iran would not be part of the agreement’s inspection or oversight regime.

The architecture of the Iranian nuclear agreement suggests that Iran could have in mind an end run around the inspections and oversight regime.

Could the Iranian agreement come to be characterized in time as Obama’s Folly, a modern-day counterpart to the ill-fated Maginot Line?

One can only hope that the issue does not arise.

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