Diplomacy

NYTimes: U.S. Should Learn to Live with Iran-Backed Syrian Regime

President Barack Obama’s retreat on insisting that President Bashar al-Assad leave power was endorsed in an editorial in The New York Times yesterday.

But the unsettling truth is that the brutal dictator is still clinging to power and the United States and its allies are going to have to live with him, at least for now.

Mr. Kerry seemed tacitly to acknowledge as much recently when he urged Mr. Assad to change his policies, while omitting the usual call for him to leave office. …

Besides, the greater threat now is not Mr. Assad but the Islamic State, especially if it continues to expand in Syria, entices more foreign fighters into its ranks and uses its territory to launch attacks on the West. A recent study by the RAND Corporation, which does research for the government, says the collapse of the Assad regime, while unlikely now, would be the “worst possible outcome” for American interests — depriving Syria of its remaining state institutions and creating more space for the Islamic State and other extremists to spread mayhem.

The editorial comes on the heels of a report last week in the Times on the administration’s shift.

American officials assure Mr. Assad, through Iraqi intermediaries, that Syria’s military is not their target. The United States still trains and equips Syrian insurgents, but now mainly to fight the Islamic State, not the government.

This a marked departure for the administration. Obama stated in August 2011 that Assad must be removed from power. As recently as September of last year, the State Department asserted that it would be impossible to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) if Assad remained in power.

It isn’t clear what prompted the administration to change course on Syria, though the Times suggested “that Washington is simply trying to disengage and offload the Syria problem to Mr. Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, even at the cost of empowering them.”

The New York Times editorial on Syria comes two weeks after an editorial urging a nuclear agreement with Iran:

A deal that is verifiable and significantly limits Iran’s nuclear activities can succeed if it both enhances regional security and benefits Iran. There will still be some risk for all sides. But the bigger risk is squandering this moment and leaving Iran free to pursue an unconstrained nuclear program.

Left unsaid is the danger of allowing Iran to pursue a secret nuclear program outside of the constraints of its declared nuclear program.

In this case too, the Times appeared to be echoing the views of the administration. At the end of November, as talks wound down without an agreement by the end of the negotiating period specified in the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the Times reported:

For weeks, the American team has sought to keep the pressure on the Iranians to make hard decisions in the talks by insisting that an extension was not on the table. “We are not talking about an extension,” Mr. Kerry insisted as recently as Thursday. “We are driving towards what we believe is the outline of an agreement that we think we can have.” …

The Obama administration already agreed to one extension in July, which it justified on the grounds that sufficient progress had been made to warrant continuing the talks until Nov. 24, the anniversary of an agreement for a temporary accord that froze some of Iran’s advances and required Iran to dilute a stockpile of fuel that the West feared could quickly be converted to weapons use.

A breakdown in talks, American and Iranian officials seem to agree, is in neither side’s interest.

Given that the Iranians were not willing to dismantle their enrichment program, the violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) treaty that prompted United Nations Security Council sanctions, it isn’t clear how an extension with significant sanctions relief promised to bring Iran into compliance with its obligations under international law. In fact, when announcing the JPOA Obama said, “and if Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.”

In both the cases of Syria and Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration appears to have made a decision not to challenge Iran.

In Is ISIS Distracting Us from a More Serious Iranian Threat?, which was published in the November 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine, David Daoud outlined the dangers of deferring to Iran on any issue in order to defeat ISIS.

Dangerous as it is, however, the level of fear and panic over ISIS is not yet completely justified. And it is causing the international community to lose perspective and overlook a far more formidable foe and agent of regional and international instability: Iran. ISIS are murderers that bask in attention and fear; “a group of adventurers with a very aggressive ideology,” as Henry Kissinger has called them. Iran is a sober and calculating foe with global reach; the discipline of its loyal cadres and its quest for nuclear weapons make ISIS pale in comparison. In the inevitable fight between the West and ISIS, Iran must not be allowed to be the ultimate victor.

Unfortunately, due to the crisis represented by the rise of ISIS, Iran is making major diplomatic gains. Long isolated from the West and under heavy recent sanctions due to its nuclear program, Iran now has a major Western lobby advocating for its inclusion in the international community. Former CIA case officer and analyst Robert Baer has said the U.S. must come to terms with Iran as a regional—and nuclear—power. Former senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council Flynt Leverett and his wife Hillary, a lecturer at American University, advocate an American rapprochement with Iran in order to salvage America’s strategic position in the Middle East. Bestselling foreign policy commentator Fareed Zakaria also recommended collaboration with Iran, which he sees as a beneficial “strategic game-changer.” He presented Iran’s influence over Iraq and its close relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as positives, recommending the extension of these alliances to Afghanistan. Quoting academic Vali Nasr, he essentially advised contracting out the United States’ “micromanagement” of the Middle East to the Islamic Republic.

More significantly, perhaps, former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has called on the West to take a “leap of faith” in order to reach a final nuclear deal with Iran that would allow it to keep a significant proportion of its existing centrifuges under international supervision. Without a hint of irony, he said that Iran was “fundamental” to establishing regional stability in Syria, northern Iraq, and—of all places—Lebanon. In light of a common threat from ISIS, he expressed hope that Prime Minister David Cameron has the foresight to recognize Iran’s utility.

Iranian officialdom has echoed these sentiments. Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi, one of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s senior military advisers, said that America’s power and regional influence are in decline; and since Iran is the most influential player in the region, “the Americans have to give concessions to the powerful Iran because Iran has the upper hand.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also noted Iran’s strategic role in combating ISIS and said that, absent his country’s assistance, Baghdad would have fallen to the Sunni Islamist group long ago.

Iran is indeed a powerful and influential country, but it is no longer the Shah’s Iran. It is not a potential Western ally in a fight against another group of Islamists. This is because, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foundational and unfaltering worldview, the West and all it stands for are mortal enemies. Iran’s enmity towards the West is therefore not contingent on concessions or attempts at rapprochement. It is a contest over the nature of the world order, on which the Iranian regime cannot and will not compromise.

[Photo: Mussalaha Reconciliation / YouTube ]