Tehran: No Squandering Any Bargaining Chips When It Comes to Syria and Hezbollah

Tehran: No Squandering Any Bargaining Chips When It Comes to Syria and Hezbollah

Raghida Dergham |

There is no harm in this being a short phase of rest to catch one’s breath for each of the United States, Russia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the condition that these countries truly resolve to prevent the further “Afghanization” or “Somalization” of Syria, and put a stop to the arrogance of the regime in Damascus and of those supporting it militarily. It is no problem for the Geneva II conference, meant to launch the process of political transition in Syria, to be postponed until clear bases and frames of reference can be established for it, from beginning to end, on the condition that the goal not be to either abort it or force it into a premature birth. No one denies the importance of regional roles, of the balance of power and of the strategic interests of countries. But it is not acceptable to be complacent when it comes to the pressing Syrian tragedy and its repercussions on neighboring countries, under the pretext of national interests or even under the cover of parallel negotiations. Of course, there are justifications for the stances taken by all players concerned on the Syrian stage, in its local, regional and international dimensions. And certainly, considerations of oil and gas and weapons sales are of the utmost importance for the United States and Russia. To the same extent, it is quite evident that the extremist ideology of the likes of Al-Qaeda, the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) makes absolutely no account of Syria’s recovery and prosperity. Rather, this ideology of destruction insists on committing crimes against humanity over the ruins of a destroyed Syria. There is no debate over the fact that the Syrian opposition is divided and scattered, and that it often harms itself as well as the Syrian people. But no one denies either, that the regime in Damascus has also committed crimes against humanity and that it cannot regain the influence and the instruments it had once held, nor return to the way things had been before the Syrian uprising. In the midst of all this, what does the United States have in store following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s tour of the region, which included Riyadh and Cairo? What comes after the failure of the tripartite meeting that brought together Joint Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League Lakhdar Brahimi, Russia’s two Deputy Foreign Ministers and the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs? What is the connection between the “two Genevas” – the one concerned with nuclear talks with Iran and the one concerned with forming a fully empowered political body to achieve the transition from the current regime in Damascus to a new system of government? And has Moscow somewhat corrected its course, so as not to seem like a bulldozer that uproots and oppresses all that stand in its way, or is it moving forward on its way to cause the failure of Geneva II, wagering on the Syrian opposition and those who support it falling into the trap of failure? Those questions are interconnected and their answers are dispersed, yet the common element between them falls within the Iranian framework, because Tehran plays a central role in all of these issues.


Opinions are divided over who the new President, Hassan Rohani, really is, over whether he could really bring radical change to the regime in Iran, and over the extent to which the Supreme Leader of the Republic, Ali Khamenei, is resisting this new approach. Perhaps the most prominent questions that concern the countries of the Arab region fall under what kind of influence the new President and his followers want to wield in the Arab countries which the old approach had insisted on considering to be central to Iran’s regional ambitions – in particular Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.


Those who are of the opinion that President Rohani merely represents a different side of the same coin expect Iran to continue to insist on playing a regional role of hegemony, the importance of which is no lesser than that of the other two crucial issues for the leaders of the regime in Tehran. The first of these is international (and especially American) recognition of the regime’s legitimacy and pledging not to support any attempt to topple it or carry out a coup against it – a demand which US President Barack Obama granted publicly from the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly last September. The second is Iran’s insistence on obtaining nuclear capabilities and continuing to enrich uranium.


Those who hold a different opinion point to the new way in which dialogue is taking place between the new President and the Supreme Leader of the Republic. One advocate of this view in fact points to several instances of this, among them President Rohani’s response to Ayatollah Khamenei in discussing the veil (hijab), indicating that the new approach in Iran enjoys a significant female popular base.


Those who subscribe to this opinion point to Rohani’s background as a security figure and the importance of this in dealing with the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), which enjoys broad power and influence within Iran as well as abroad, in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.


They say that President Rohani is preparing for the Grand Bargain with methods different from those Khamenei’s followers and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard had clung to, as he is much more focused on saving the Islamic Republic of Iran from economic deterioration due to the continued sanctions imposed on it. He has made of lifting those sanctions his primary objective, even if the cost is rolling back Iran’s regional hegemony. In other words, according to one expert, President Rohani will most likely insist on clinging to Iraq as the main arena of Iranian influence, but might be prepared to abandon a few of the ambitions of the old approach to have a foothold on the Mediterranean by holding Syria along with Lebanon.


One seasoned Arab politician and expert on Iran said that the “Grand Bargain” is not yet ready; and that when it will be, Tehran will be prepared – or forced – to abandon Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and to drive Hezbollah in Lebanon to have less sway on Lebanon’s fate than it does today.


What the new Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is close to President Rohani, said is noteworthy in this respect. Indeed, he said that Tehran could make use of its influence to encourage foreign fighters to withdraw from Syria. This was part of Zarif’s answer to a question about whether Iran was prepared to make use of its influence on Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, when he appeared on French television network France 24 a few days ago. He said: “Iran is prepared to call for [the] withdrawal of all foreign forces from [Syria] (…) We are prepared for everybody with influence to push for [the] withdrawal of all non-Syrians from the Syrian soil.”


Such a stance reflects the opinion of one of the leaders of the new approach, yet it does not automatically means that the leaders of the traditional approach have given up or that Hezbollah has chosen a particular path for itself between the two approaches. Indeed, the leader of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, Mohammad Raad, attacked his party’s opponents, saying: “We have defended ourselves and our Lebanon as defense requires, but beware of forcing us to behave other than defensively”. He also said: “There is no centrist position called dissociation. This kind of neutral centrism represents bias in favor of the wrong side, be it intentional or unintentional.” Such talk does not reflect the moderate approach that has come to Tehran in the form of President Rohani. Thus, either the disagreement between the two approaches is a radical one, or this is the phase for both approaches to reposition themselves, or the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies are purposely engaging in role distribution within the strategy of negotiations in Geneva – whether they be nuclear, political, or concerned with Syria.


Such language is new in appearance and in effect. Yet there is a language in Iran’s discourse that is part of its “unshakable principles” and remains standing quite strongly. The new kind of discourse is the one that openly talks of trading the willingness to achieve progress in negotiations on the nuclear issue for lifting or reducing sanctions. Iran’s traditional discourse persists in its insistence on continuing to enrich uranium at 20 percent, while hinting at the possibility of “suspending” enrichment at this percentage if such a step is preceded by effective measures to seriously reduce the sanctions that are breaking the back of the economy in Iran. Indeed, the formula of such negotiations is based on the race between an agreement over a framework for negotiations and a preliminary lifting of sanctions.


The battle to lift or reduce sanctions on Iran is as much a domestic battle in the United States as it is part of negotiations with Iran. Indeed, there is serious opposition to the Obama administration’s rush to bow down to Iran’s demands in advance and its reckless haste to win the battle of “trust.” Iran wants the United States not to be too stringent when it comes to “removing” the sanctions, and to recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium as a “red line” – this as an indication of its “good intentions and in order to drive the negotiations forward,” as stated by Iran’s official news agency, quoting a source close to the team negotiating over the nuclear issue.


The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, said: “We are committed to rational resistance and will spare no effort to preserve our interests. We hope that the six countries will not repeat their past mistakes in the negotiations.” As for Mohammad Javad Zarif, he speaks the language of his country “address[ing] serious realistic concerns of the Western members of P5+1 (…) on the condition that they are also prepared to address our concerns,” and demands that these countries “regain the trust of the Iranian people” and remedy “the type of behavior that has been exhibited by certain Western countries, leading to a great deal of mistrust on the Iranian side.”


This is with regard to the Geneva of nuclear talks. Regarding Geneva II, which aims to hold political talks on the future of Syria, on the other hand, Iran insists on participating, supported in such insistence by its Russian ally. It is keeping all of its chips for negotiation at this table, starting from the direct and indirect role it plays on the battlefield in Syria, through the requirements of regional repositioning in Arab arenas (in particular Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon), and up to its own relationship with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in particular the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


Tehran has taken note of the importance of John Kerry’s visit to Riyadh, meant to satisfy and reassure the Saudi leadership concerning the commitment of the United States to their strategic relationship, which includes both the national security and the regional security of Gulf countries within the framework of their alliance with the US. This does not mean that Iran has rushed to draw the conclusion that a new stable approach has emerged for the Obama administration or that Washington will back down on its overwhelming enthusiasm towards Tehran. Indeed, Iranian shrewdness means skillful analysis of the American political scene, but also, to the same extent, the art of patience – until the bargain has matured and until all means have been utilized to bring it to fruition or to sabotage it. Moreover, Iranian policy remains inflexible with regard to the central importance of Syria for Iran’s future in the Grand Bargain, if it is ever completed. Indeed, Iran produces surprises whenever it wishes because its behavior is difficult to analyze or to predict. And according to one “story” that is difficult to believe, the reason for President Barack Obama backing down on directing a military strike against Syria in the last few hours was the fact that he received – according to these claims which could not be verified – a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin informing him that, if the United States were to direct a military strike against Syria, Iran would be prepared to direct a strike against the Gulf countries aimed exclusively at crippling their entire electrical grid in retaliation. According to the one making this claim, Obama yielded to this warning because such a retaliatory strike would have forced him to respond militarily to Iran, and he thus decided not let himself be dragged into Syria at all. And that would be exactly what Iranian shrewdness would have, perhaps, wagered on.


Realistically and far from any guesswork, what Tehran is adopting now is a policy of not squandering its Syrian assets, as represented by its alliance with the regime in Damascus and its continued support of Bashar Al-Assad’s presidency, at least until presidential elections are held next summer. It views Geneva II as a conference that would seat it at the table of forging Syria’s future and would provide it with bargaining chips for negotiations with the United States. And Tehran today – with its new approach or with its old one – is not likely to squander the Hezbollah card, regardless of what has been said about its willingness at the end of the day to “expend” this precious asset it holds within the framework of the Grand Bargain, which remains distant.


Indeed, this phase is one of temporary rest to catch one’s breath, and everyone will return to the strategic policy drawing board in accordance with their immediate or long-term interests. Syria will remain an arena of wagering and gathering bargaining chips for all players, great and small, for a period of time that will not be short, and in which will increase the tragedy of the Syrian people, both those internally displaced and those who have migrated to neighboring countries, which are in turn not yet fully out of danger.