Monday, February 4, 2013
Iran Nuke/Syrian Linkage Is Fool’s Errand
by Jonathan S. Tobin
The latest round of the P5+1 talks between the West and Iran over efforts to persuade the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambitions is scheduled to begin again later this month. Notwithstanding the spectacular failure of this negotiating process last year, speculation is rife as to what, if any, leverage can be exerted over Tehran. According to Haaretz, the scuttlebutt from last week’s Security Conference in Munich, Germany is leading some to draw some interesting conclusions about whether the fate of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is somehow linked to the nuclear program of his Iranian ally.
It’s hard to get a grip on what scenarios the rumors emanating from Munich would entail, but the gist of it is that some people are beginning to assume that Iran might be inclined to make some nuclear concessions in order to save the Assad regime. The assumption is based on the idea that both Iran and the United States have a common goal in Syria in keeping radical Islamists from taking power in Damascus that would owe nothing to either country. But given recent developments in Syria and the importance of the nuclear project to the prestige of the Iranian government, the idea that linkage between the two issues will lead to any progress toward Assad’s exit or an end to the nuclear threat seems far-fetched.
Diplomatic rumors of this sort can always be dismissed as either disinformation or an attempt to manipulate Western opinion. But what is troubling about this talk of a connection between the Syrian civil war and the Iran talks is that it is coming at a time when confidence in the ability of Assad’s opponents to overthrow the dictator is ebbing. The blithe assumptions about the fall of the Syrian government were always based more on unfounded optimism than hard facts. Though the rebels have demonstrated an ability to maintain themselves against brutal attempts at repression, Assad has also shown that his staying power is far greater than the Obama administration, and others who hoped he would disappear without getting their hands dirty, hoped.
Some may find the willingness of the Russians to meet with the Syrian opposition a sign that they may be about to dump their client, but Assad is a vital link in the Iranian attempt to maintain their sphere of influence over Lebanon via its Hezbollah auxiliaries. They have fought hard for him and will not concede the loss of the strategic advantage this alliance provides them until it is proven that he can be driven from power. As dangerous as his position may be, that proof has yet to be found, especially since the West refuses to involve itself more directly in the conflict with a no-fly zone or more aid to the rebels.
It is far more likely that the crafty negotiators from Tehran are hoping to use the Syrian mess as a way to distract their Western negotiating partners from the nuclear issue. Only a hopeless optimist would think the Iranians would give up their nuclear program now after years of prevarication with the West had gotten them so close to their goal of a weapon. It takes an equal amount of faith in their good will to think they are prepared to swap the nukes for Assad’s survival or that they would keep their word even if they did.
Unfortunately, given the willingness of the Obama administration and the rest of the P5+1 group to return to a failed process with no tangible reason to think the Iranians are less resolute or skillful in delaying tactics, hopeless optimism is the only accurate way to describe the West’s approach to the talks. Given that weakness, the rumors about Syrian linkage should further encourage Iran to treat the administration’s tough talk as nothing they should worry about–no matter what happens in the negotiations. Anyone sent to explore the possibility of linkage between Iranian nukes and Assad’s future is being sent on a fool’s errand.
Jonathan S. Tobin
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