US, Iran Participation Indispensable to Resolving Syrian Conflict
September 1st, 2013 - by Azadeh Eftekhari
An attack on Syria would spark a war which Iranian officials have described as another Vietnam for the US. Many analysts believe that even if the dimensions of such an attack are to be limited, one cannot predict the extent of its ramifications. On the other hand, Syria is regarded as Iran’s strategic ally in regional equations and it has benefited from Iran’s support from the beginning of the unrests. Iranian Diplomacy spoke to Jim Lobe, an American journalist and Washington Bureau Chief of the international news agency Inter Press Service, about whether such an attack would cause Iran to enter the war and what effect this would have on the fate of nuclear talks.
These days, we are hearing serious talk of an attack on Syria. In your opinion, how serious is the threat of military action against this country?
I think Obama, as he said yesterday, intends to carry out “very limited” strikes in the hope that Syria will not feel obliged to retaliate or to sharply escalate his own military efforts in the ongoing civil war (such as using chemical weapons). I don’t think Obama seeks any engagement that can escalate into war, because that ultimately could lead to deploying ground troops which is the last thing his administration – of even most hawks in Congress – want to see happen. So much depends on whether Damascus decides to simply take whatever punishment Washington dishes out and not respond or whether it retaliates in a way that will put renewed pressure on Obama to strike again. In any event, U.S. officials have made clear that any attack they carry out will not be designed to achieve “regime change” – both to persuade Assad that he does not face an existential threat that would necessitate retaliation and to ensure that the rebels, who are seen increasingly as dominated by radical Sunni Islamists, cannot take power.
Many politicians oppose the US attack on Syria because they are worried about the reaction of Iran and its allies in the axis of resistance, including Hezbollah. If an attack is carried out, will Tehran directly enter the scene?
I think if any attack escalates, the possibility that Iran and its allies in the region would become involved increases. As I noted above, the administration hopes there will be no escalation. If not, that will reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility of Iran and its becoming directly involved. The indications from the Islamic Republic appear mixed. Some IRGC commanders are threatening retaliation in various ways, while the civilian leadership of the new government appears much calmer and more restrained, perhaps having been encouraged through third parties, such as Mr. Feltman, to believe that Washington is prepared to seriously engage Iran on a number of issues, including Syria. Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani’s reported comments today, if true, regarding the possibility use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons, have been taken as an encouraging sign, as have President Rouhani’s recent tweets on chemical weapons in particular.
It has been said that Mr. Feltman clearly discussed the Syrian crisis and the Geneva-2 conference in his recent trip to Iran. Does this mean that the US has changed its approach toward Iran’s role in Syria?
There is much speculation about precisely that issue but no confirmation as yet.
In addition to the Syrian crisis, there is the nuclear issue which seems critical for the West and another round of nuclear talks with the IAEA has been scheduled for September 27. Does the issue of Syria have any effect on these nuclear talks?
It clearly could have an impact, particularly if a U.S. strike escalates into a bigger conflict. A number of commentators have argued that it makes little sense for Obama to take military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons if that means the chances of progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran will be substantially reduced, and I’m quite certain the administration is aware of that. Of course, the administration will still face pressures from various quarters – Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Israel and its supporters here – to go beyond two or three days of cruise-missile strikes and take actions that will at least return the civil war in Syria to a stalemate, if not give the rebels the upper hand. But I think the administration will resist that pressure unless Syria tries to retaliate in a tangible way, and then things escalate from there.
You have previously written that a nuclear Iran is not an imminent threat to the world. But the recent IAEA report mentions an increase in Iran’s enrichment capacity and now this has given the US Congress another excuse to push for new sanctions. If new sanctions are approved, what will happen to the diplomatic process?
I think more sanctions at this reduce the prospects for progress in the negotiations because they strengthen hard-liners in Tehran and weaken Rouhani and his supporters who appear to want progress as a way of reducing sanctions. I think that is understood in Washington, so I would expect the administration to oppose such sanctions and to persuade the majority Democrats in the Senate to prevent, or at least delay, sanctions from passing – something it has not been very successful at to date. Its most effective argument is that new sanctions will reduce international support for pressing Iran to make concessions, and that some countries will decide the sanctions are unproductive and defy them in one way or another.
In your opinion, have the chances of a Tehran-Washington agreement on Syria increased with the coming to power of the new Iranian administration?
I think a deal to resolve the conflict in Syria will require many more actors, including Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc. and cannot be resolved between Washington and Tehran by themselves. At the same time, I think the participation of both Washington and Tehran are indispensable to resolving the conflict. Tehran’s involvement is critical, but Saudi Arabia and some of its GCC allies, as well as Israel, would not be happy about it because it would signal U.S. recognition of Iran’s strategic importance in the region and diminish their own, relatively speaking.
In your opinion, is a deal on Syria more possible or a deal on the nuclear issue?
I think a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is more possible with the election of President Rouhani, although Syria could complicate the prospects for such a deal if the conflict there escalates. I think some of the things that senior administration officials have said in recent days – even while they seem determined to carry out strikes against Syria – appear to take account of Iranian concerns; for example, noting that Iran has suffered very much from chemical weapons itself. In addition, in an interview this week, Obama said he was willing to “work with anybody – the Russians and others” to resolve the civil in Syria, which appeared to signal U.S. acceptance of an Iranian role, possibly at Geneva 2.0. Of course, bringing Iran into negotiations over Syria (as well as Afghanistan) would help set the stage for brighter prospects on the nuclear negotiations whose success, however, will depend importantly on reciprocal confidence-building measures on both sides. Such measures will provide momentum to the negotiations and make it much more difficult for parties, such as Israel and its supporters here, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, to slow or block progress toward an eventual and more comprehensive deal. But both sides will have to make compromises from previous positions.