The diplomatic campaign launched by the American administration in Europe and the region through the tours conducted by President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, should be provoking concerns in Iran, the invincible state. Indeed, it has become clear that Washington, which has released Moscow’s hands to seek a solution for the Syrian crisis ever since its eruption, is growing closer to an understanding with it over the transitional phase and the adoption of a settlement which would end the rule of the Assad family. By doing so, it has portrayed it as a superpower or the “frenemy” to whom it listens.
What is left is for this friend to return the favor, which will certainly be at the level of the Iranian nuclear situation. So far, Obama’s administration has not been harmed by what is happening in Syria as much as the Islamic Republic, whose leaders are warning that “they cannot keep Tehran if they lose Syria!” Hence, they are aware of the fact that this loss will not stop at Syria’s borders and might extend to Lebanon and Iraq.
No invincible superpower
This position conveys Tehran’s deep fears, as America’s experience from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq taught it that there is no invincible superpower, considering that the United States did not come out victorious from those countries, just like the Soviet Union did not win in Kabul. Therefore, despite its excessive confidence, it cannot deny the extent of the challenge it is facing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. And no matter how hard it tries to deploy its weapons in Yemen and Africa, it is aware of the sensitivity of the situation it might face in Afghanistan in the future once the Taliban movement returns to it, regardless of the shape of the settlement on the eve of NATO’s withdrawal from the country. In addition, its power display via maneuvers on the northeastern border will not do it any good.
True, Iran has so far practiced a rejectionist policy in America’s face on numerous arenas. However, this expansion, progress or role does not immunize it, but rather weakens it, especially within the domestic arena. The situation at this level can be compared to the role practiced by Syria throughout decades, i.e. what the West dubbed an obstructive role on the Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi scenes, or a sabotaging role in Turkey and Jordan, among other locations. Today, it has become an arena for anyone seeking a role, even acting as the 35th province of the Islamic Republic (!)
Can Iran disregard the Sunni alignment around Syria, from Iraq to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, not to mention the Gulf Cooperation Council and the states of the Muslim Brotherhood spring? It is an alignment threatening with the elimination of the Shiite Crescent, as it is dubbed by many Arab leaders.
The Sunni-Shiite conflict
In the meantime, Iran’s attempts to flee forward or to smuggle weapons to Nigeria after Yemen and other countries will not do it any good. The Sunni action from Tripoli to Baghdad is threatening to fuel the Sunni-Shiite conflict throughout the region, and nothing can guarantee the Islamic Republic’s victory at this level, unless this is what was meant by those who believed that their country “generated transformation in human communities!” It will also be useless for it to woo Russia by pointing to the fact that the “influential Iranian presence in the region serves it,” considering that Moscow will not shift away from the American stand vis-à-vis the nuclear file, just like China.
Indeed, while Beijing is opposed to the emergence of a nuclear state in its Sea, whether in North Korea or Japan, Russia also wishes to protect its regional security and its former republics in the center of Asia, and is unwilling to tolerate any nuclear neighbors. This is why it has supported – along with China – the economic sanctions ratified by the Security Council against the Islamic Republic.
Renewal of sectarian war
The American administration stalled at the level of the Syrian crisis, thus giving Russia enough time to become convinced of the regime’s inability to settle the situation, and allowing Iran to become directly involved in the conflict by supporting the Syrian regime on all levels and implicating Hezbollah in the standoff. The administration’s pressures on Iran were pointless prior to the changes that affected the region. Today however, Hamas has left Damascus and headed to Cairo, while Nouri al-Maliki’s detractors in Iraq have come together, calling not only for his toppling, but also for the ending of the Iranian role in Baghdad. This is heralding the renewal of sectarian war, added this time around to an open conflict with Kurdistan which has allied with Turkey. In light of this development, it will be difficult for Tehran to remain idle towards what is happening on its immediate Western border.
The Syrian crisis has reached a point where the international community cannot risk seeing the collapse of the state and its institutions, or any possible division, in parallel to the threat posed on the entire region by the expansion of the extremist movements. In addition, the mounting humanitarian tragedy caused by the mobile massacres, the destruction of the cities and the spread of refugees and displaced both domestically and across the border, cannot be ignored anymore. On the other hand, if Moscow succeeds in managing the settlement, it will have to give the Americans something in return at the level of the Iranian nuclear file, if Tehran rejects Washington’s call for dialogue.
This does not mean that Iran will be positive, as nothing reveals it will accept a settlement. Its actions are even pointing to a completely different path, after its allies in Iraq mobilized their militias in preparation for the confrontation to defend the State of Law Coalition government, and after it instructed Damascus to form similar militias that have started to assume their posts on the combat fronts. In Lebanon, it is no longer a secret that it has decided to implicate Hezbollah in the fighting on the ground, knowing that all these steps are recipes leading to civil wars and fueling the acute sectarianism which already exists in the region.
Ever since the eruption of the crisis in Syria, Hezbollah has been looking into its options in the presence of a team inclined to reach an understanding with the Future Movement, in order to reinstate the former majority government and turn the page of the weapons of the resistance and the campaign launched against them. But such an understanding implies the presence of conditions, since it cannot be isolated from the sides involved in the ongoing conflict in the region. In other words, it should be part of a wider understanding between Iran and a number of Arab countries, at the head of which are the Gulf states, or a prelude for a wider regional understanding that naturally features costs and prices. But the climate in the region does not point in that direction. On the other hand, a second team is more stringent and refusing to offer what it is dubbing “free concessions,” and a third believes that extremism is the only way for the resistance to maintain its cards, the biggest proof for that being the outcome of the May 7, 2008 incidents.
The party is aware of the fact that the abstinence policy adopted by Najib Mikati’s government and supported by Western states led to a quasi-war between the Lebanese, but on Syrian soil. However, this situation might not be sustained if the fire were to cross the border in the Bekaa and the North, as per the threats of the Free Army’s command. The last thing the party wants is to be led into domestic confrontations which could undermine it, at a time when it is raising the slogan “the weapons aim to confront Israel.”
It is no secret that the party has adopted precautionary measures to avoid this slide with alternative options for the understanding or direct confrontation. Indeed, its allies in most regions have now formed groups of supporters which could act as fronts, sparing it from direct implication in any clash or round wherever it may be. In addition, the Lebanese army will not allow the transfer of the conflict over Syria to the domestic scene, and might not settle for traditional security arrangements as long as all the Lebanese are calling on it to act as a shelter and protector.
In light of these challenges, Iran – which benefited from the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and accumulated an important regional credit – cannot convince the world it has become invincible as it is facing an alarming economic and political situation, and as its role in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria is truly at risk. It is not enough for it to boast about its missile achievements over the rubble of a faltering economy and while bearing in mind the outcome of the experience of the Soviet Union. It can no longer wager on the American military retreating from the region or convince Russia that their common interests supersede Moscow’s interests with the United States and Europe in general. And if the Russian midwife is able to deliver a settlement to the Syrian crisis, Tehran will find itself completely isolated unless it succumbs to the requirements of this settlement, no matter how much it persists or overestimates its strength. Indeed, it cannot engage in wars on all fronts at the same time, and once the time for deals between the major actors come, it will have to recognize that it cannot place itself among the latter.
The sanctions did not push it to succumb to the conditions of its opponents, so will it continue to show obstinacy towards its eroding role in the region following the erosion of its economy? Does it not believe it is risking all the cards it has worked so hard to acquire throughout years? Is it not risking the loss of Hezbollah’s card in Syria, thus losing the Palestine card along with it? What is the purpose of those cards if they are not used in such times? Does Tehran think that the major players will allow it to change the entire Middle Eastern scene? Its insistence on a hefty price on the eve of its meetings with the P5+1 group in Kazakhstan means that it is not yet ready, or that it is waiting until the end of its presidential elections in June. But will Syria wait until then?
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 26, 2013
Lebanese writer George Semaan started his career as the local political affairs editor in An-Nahar newspaper. He moved to London where he contributed to re-establishing al-Hayat, and was appointed as the managing editor. Being a deputy editor in chief at al-Hayat, he was also assigned as the editor-in-chief of al-Wasat newspaper. Later, he was assigned editor- in-chief of al-Hayat. Now he is the chief editor of the newsroom at al-Hayat LBC, an Arabic newspaper and television channel.