ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | The Iranian Deal

The Iranian Deal

28 October 2012

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

The Iranians are engaged in serious brinksmanship throughout the Middle East but are on the verge of a comeback. They are neither as stupid nor as destructively dogmatic (in the short term) as many assume. Indications are emerging that after the US elections in less than two weeks Washington will engage Tehran is a series of discussions aimed at halting their nuclear program. Dismantlement is not the issue. One can expect the ayatollahs to agree but at a hefty price even if the West refuses to "officially" comply. For Iran the Israel card goes into deep freeze waiting for re-activation at a later date. Suspending their nuclear program in the face of Western sanctions allows the Iranians to shore up other no less important fronts on the verge of collapse.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei needs to restore stability at home and reconsolidate previous gains. Western sanctions are affecting the Iranian economy with the local currency the rial losing tens of percent in value jolting inflation skywards (35,000 rials = $1). Iranian banks cannot do business abroad and pumped oil is stockpiled waiting for buyers. One can expect the Iranians to temporarily trade off advancement in their nuclear initiative for increased influence throughout the Middle East. Four fronts demand their immediate attention – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arab side of the Persian Gulf.

* Syria is Iran's biggest headache. Should their staunch ally Pres. Bashar Assad fall Iranian influence throughout the Middle East will be seriously compromised. Projecting power through the minority Alawite regime the Iranians are able to bolster their Lebanese Hezbollah Shiite allies and threaten Israel with massive missile strikes originating in both Damascus and Beirut. At Iranian Pres. Ahmedinejad's request Hezbollah is sending men to battle the Syrian rebels amid reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard involvement to save the present Baathist regime.

* The Syrian civil war is for export, particularly to Lebanon (and possibly Jordan). Constantly plagued by communal rivalries and the resulting civil war (1975-1990) Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976 but only forced a stabilization on their own terms some 14 years later. The multi-ethnic/religious Lebanon was effectively a Syrian province. After implication in the assassination of the anti-Syrian billionaire politician Rafik Hariri in 2005 Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops. Syrian rule continues by proxy through the Iranian directed Shiite military arm Hezbollah, a legally armed militia more powerful than the Lebanese Army and represented by a minority political faction in the government with veto powers. All this may unravel should the anti-Iranian, anti-Assad forces in Lebanon rally to overthrow the present Lebanese government. Opposition forces feared taking action until now but with the assassination of the anti-Syrian Army Intelligence Chief Gen. Wissam al-Hassan last week those hostile to the present order are less deterred by Hezbollah threats than before. Hassan took action against Syrian and Iranian efforts to undermine Lebanese sovereignty by the Assad – Ahmedinejad alliance and paid the price. The murder is seen as a warning not to interfere with Iranian hegemony in Lebanon. The shaky Lebanese mosaic comprising Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze may shatter.

* In Iraq the Americans are gone, the Shiite majority led by President Nuri al-Maliki reigns but physical security and economic stability are in question. Iraq is very much a failed state, frequent massive bombings and little overall security. On the ethnic front the Sunni minority is a threat still seeking redress for its leadership loss after Saddam Hussein's defeat in 2003. The Sunnis still control the western regions including those bordering Syria and appear active in support for the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army rebels. At the moment the Kurds to the north are quiet but change could be sudden should they sense an opportunity to push for even more autonomy. Iran as the Shiite world leader is the greatest beneficiary since the American withdrawal. Traveling from Iran through Iraq to the Syrian border is some 500 kilometers or 300 miles but passes through Sunni territory. Such a supply line raises questions of security. More assured is an air link bringing in men and military supplies to an increasingly besieged Assad regime.

* There is the all important Arab Shiite population in the Persian Gulf. It is always a question of whether they are more Arab or more Shiite. Should Shiism rule the day then Iran is the patron. Although a majority (Bahrain) or a substantial minority in the Persian Gulf Arab nations the Sunni elite rules and Shiites suffer discrimination. Stirring up a Shiite rebellion spreads Iranian influence. Advocating human rights while being dependent on Gulf oil puts Western powers and particularly the USA in a quandary. They need the oil states as allies but democratization could lead to further Iranian influence. Iran relishes the idea of forcing the West into a corner either through violence or democratic reforms. Tehran benefits both ways.

For the moment exterminating Israel can be put on a back burner, Iran is not deterred here, just delayed. The Iranians will gladly trade off a delay for the lifting of sanctions to gain ground on the above mentioned fronts, most likely without either an endorsement or opposition from the American led Western alliance. The West is so weary from the continuing financial crisis and its military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the Iranians can expect to find a willing partner in Washington.

Briefly stated Tehran seeks to lead an initiative from its borders westwards through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Military and diplomatic moves are necessary. They view themselves as leaders in the Arab Persian Gulf with Shiite loyalties given to them and not to the Arab secular (or Sunni religious) regimes. By momentarily dropping the nuclear program and Israel's extermination as policy objectives Iran can shore up its position as a major player in the post 2011 Arab Muslim World. Looking forward a step further, the Turks are their most formidable adversaries and not the Jewish State. The Turkish-Iranian conflict of interests is already engaged in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and even the different Kurdish provinces throughout the region.

On the global level both Russia and China lean towards the Iranians but are not enthralled with a nuclear Tehran. Their support can be construed anti-West especially in lieu of the NATO intervention in Libya where the two lost points in the international arena for being passive bystanders.

So how far will the USA and the West go? Iran will halt its program and there will be inspections. Washington and the West will not get involved in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq. The Persian Gulf Arab Shiites are another story. Human rights are important to the West but oil supplies trump all. We saw that last year in Bahrain. For sure most of what is agreed upon will not be made public, but this is of little importance since whatever is concluded will be subject to systematic creeping Iranian violations. Most significantly Iran will not be constrained in its other Middle Eastern dealings. Tehran may even be "invited" in by Damascus to help "stabilize" Syria and in the meantime sign an alliance with Iraq.

To achieve all this, the ayatollahs must remain on top. With turmoil continuing to sweep the Arab Muslim World the Iranians are sending a clear message through the massive indiscriminate violence being visited on ordinary Syrians by the Tehran backed Assad regime. Anyone defying Iran will pay the full consequences. We see this in the assassinations in Lebanon and the brutal civil war in Syria. But the target audience is the Iranian population themselves, many of whom oppose the ayatollahs. The point is clear – internal opposition will be crushed in the most horrifying manner.

Whether Iran will succeed in solidifying its sphere of influence has yet to be seen. But one policy objective will not be abandoned – its nuclear program. When conditions are correct the ayatollahs will press the "Restart" button and once again the West (and Israel) will face the Iranian nuclear threat.