Prior to this week, Iran was rarely mentioned in connection with the August 21 chemical-weapons attack around Damascus that Washington says killed some 1,429 people.
Instead, Western powers discussed the need to enforce a global "red line" against governments using chemical weapons. The target for the message: the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which Western intelligence agencies say launched the attack.
But now the talk in Washington is about a second "red line" that also needs to be enforced. And this time the government to receive the message is Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned Iran repeatedly as he sought U.S. Congressional support on September 4 for military action against Syria. "Iran -- I guarantee you -- is hoping we look the other way," he said. "And surely they will interpret America's unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction as an unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction."
The French government this week also included Iran in its arguments as it briefed parliament on its plans to participate in punitive strikes.
"To not act [on Syria] would be to put in danger peace and security in the entire region but also beyond that -- our own security," French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament on September 4.
"I ask the question, what credibility would our international commitments have against nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. What message would this send to other regimes, and I am thinking, like you, of Iran."
Fighting All WMD
Analysts say the inclusion of Iran in the debate may be intended to beef up Western political support for action against Syria after the British government suffered a stinging rebuke when Parliament voted against military intervention last week.
"The Iranian issue is being presented as an added advantage, should action be undertaken," explains Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the London-based political risk analysis group Cornerstone Global Associates. "So now [the argument] has expanded from a limited punitive strike against Assad into more, longer-term benefits simply to widen the appeal of a potential strike -- both to people in the region and out of the region -- that this is about WMD in general and not about a particular, specific limited use of chemical weapons."
Nuseibeh says that the broadening of the strike rationale also may be intended to handicap Russia, which has categorically opposed military action. It puts Moscow in the position of having to weigh its support for the Assad regime against its role as one of the six world powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- seeking a solution to the Iran nuclear crisis. Key to the six powers' strategy is convincing Tehran they are firmly determined to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Iran's increasing entry into the Syria debate comes amid a growing war of words between Western capitals and Tehran over the anticipated U.S.-led strike on Syria.
Washington has accused Tehran, Assad's closest ally, of widening the Syrian conflict by supporting the cross-border participation of Lebanese Shi'ite Hizballah fighters on the side of Assad's troops. Tehran provides funds and weapons to both Assad and Hizballah.
Kerry included Hizballah as one of the reasons Washington has to enforce its red line on Syria when he spoke to the U.S. Senate this week. He mentioned both the militia and North Korea as parties "listening for our silence."
Raising The Stakes
For its part, Iran has repeatedly warned Washington not to strike Syria. Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said on August 27 that "there will definitely be perilous consequences for the region...these complications and consequences will not be restricted to Syria."
Tehran has stopped short of spelling out what the consequences would be. But analyst Nuseibeh says the implied threat is to Washington's interests in the Levant. "The Iranians are unlikely to themselves go against the United States and start bombing American interests. I think it is far too early to predict anything of that sort," he says. "However, I think with a U.S. strike against Assad, the Iranians would probably use their proxies, in other words Hizballah, to go against the Americans."
All this raises the stakes of a strike against Damascus dramatically as Washington and Paris push ahead with plans for military action in the immediate future.
U.S. President Barack Obama received a strong sign on September 4 that he will get the congressional support he seeks. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a draft resolution backing U.S. military action by a vote of 10-7, clearing the way for a vote in the full Senate that is expected next week. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee began holding hearings on the draft resolution on September 4.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande said on September 3 that he was waiting only for a decision from the U.S. Congress before making his own final decision on committing French forces to a strike. Hollande does not need approval from parliament to do so.