Friday, March 23, 2012

"Iran and Syria; Syria and Iran!"

MEPGS excerpts                                                                                            March 23, 2012
“Iran and Syria; Syria and Iran”, said one US official this week.   Then he added, “That’s today.  Tomorrow could be Egypt and that could be even worse.”  However, with President Obama ‘s appearance before the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the focus was most directly on Iran.  The President received plaudits from a wide variety of observers and government officials.  As one well informed observer put it, “He made it clear where the Administration stands.  Until now, many, even officials within the Administration were uncertain whether US policy would eventually lead to acceptance of the inevitability of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon. By ruling out a policy of “containment”, the President drew a line where one had not existed before.
This declaration clearly encouraged those who have taken a hard line on Iran, not only in the US but among European countries as well.   who are concerned that “unacceptable” progress in developing a nuclear weapon by Iran is measured differently in Washington than in Jerusalem.  What Israeli Defense Minister Barak has called Iran’s potential “zone of immunity” [from attack] will occur a lot sooner for Israel than for the US.  And US officials, aware that Israel prizes its ability to act independently above most everything else, know it will not easily for them to accept that only the US can be in a position to set back, if not halt, Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.
Yet the Israelis are also aware that just in the past few weeks have tough economic sanctions begun to affect Iran.  New sanctions by the European Union; cutbacks in oil purchases by Japan and the latest blow, the cut-off of Iran’s access to the Belgian-based “SWIFT”, an international clearing house for financial transactions have the potential not only to seriously damage the Iranian economy, but in the view of US analysts, to threaten the stability of the regime.
The Parliamentary elections held earlier this month in Iran, which, according to US analysts, significantly enhanced the power of the “Supreme Leader”, Ayotollah Khameini, may, paradoxically, increase the chances for Iran to accede to international pressure on the nuclear issue.  “For Khameini  & Company, the name of the game is ‘survival,” says one State Department official.  In his view, by emerging stronger from elections that, unlike those for President in 2009, were calm and peaceful, resulted in a splintering of power among many factions, thereby enhancing Khameini’s role as ultimate arbiter.  Secure in power, he now has the authority, so the argument goes, to allow a deal with the so-called “P-5 + 1[Russia, China, the US, Britain, France and Germany) in talks slated to begin in April.
In the meantime, the sanctions will continue to tighten adding incentives day-by-day for the Iranians to make a deal.  It is expected by those involved in setting up the talks that the first round will be a mere exchange of formalities.  Two more rounds, hopefully in succeeding months, will better determine whether the Iranians are serious about making a deal or merely stalling for time.
This scenario still leaves time for Israel to stay its military hand – something all those negotiating with Iran desperately desire.  “There is no doubt that the Israeli threat of military action has had a salutary effect of pushing outside powers to squeeze Iran,” says one State Department insider.  “But this will all boomerang should Israel not give us enough time.”  Moreover, what worries some observers is Barak’s role.  One veteran US official who dealt with Barak when he was Israel’s Prime Minister, found him to be “always convinced he was right, even when, in retrospect he was wrong.”  Most Israeli analysts say that Barak is a “step ahead” of Prime Minister Netanyahu in his willingness to use military force against Iran.  And while Netanyahu has used bellicose words himself, some veteran observers believe that ultimately the Prime Minister will back down in the face, not only of the prospect of international opprobrium, but after analyzing his own domestic polling which shows a minority supporting unilateral military action by Israel.  “Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] lives and dies by the polls,” says one veteran diplomat, noting that in recent months he went against his own ideology on terrorism when he made a lopsided prisoner swap with Hamas for the release of one Israeli soldier and balked at the last moment in a deal with Turkey that would have reset Israeli-Turkish relations.  “In both cases, Bibi went with the majority, according to the polls.”
Making deals with Turkey has become a problem for other international actors as well.  With its formidable military and key geographical location, it is uniquely suited to pressure the Assad regime in Syria to halt its violent crackdown on armed and unarmed opposition.  While, US officials strive to keep in contact with their Turkish counterparts, rumors have emerged that the key Turkish actor, Prime Minister Erdogan is in poor health.  Since many analysts see him as something of a “one man band” [to cite a State Department official’s phrase], his absence from the scene could severely hamper international efforts to pressure Syria. [Although, Turkey is hosting a meeting of Syrian opposition figures on April 1].  
Absent a strong Turkish role, pressure from the outside has had almost no effect on the actions of the Assad regime.... And US officials, like their European counterparts have continued, what might euphemistically be called a “cautious” approach to involvement in Syria.  Only some of the Gulf States, led by Qatar, have begun to think in terms of greater assistance to those fighting the Assad regime.  “The Qataris are pressing the Saudis to do more in the way of arming the resistance,” says one well informed US official.  And, although the Saudis have made it clear they want Bashar and his entourage to go, they have not, as yet, devoted the means to making that happen..."

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