Jul 3rd 2012

Iran: Staying In Power Trumps Nuclear Ambitions

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The only way the clerical regime in Iran will meet the demands of the P5+1 to end its nuclear enrichment program and comply with the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements of unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities is if the Mullahs conclude that they stand to lose their grip on power. The United States and the European community, in particular, must now capitalize on Iran’s growing regional isolation, especially in the wake of the upheaval in Syria and its regional repercussions and the impact of the sanctions, which are now entering a new crippling phase that Tehran may no longer be able to withstand. 

The intense pressure on Iran over its defiance of numerous UN Security Council resolutions continues to cast a dark shadow over Iran’s regional and international standing. After months of failed negotiations, the possibility of an Israeli and/or American attack on its nuclear facilities is approaching a dangerous precipice as Israel and the US have been continuously explicit that “all options are on the table”, including the use of force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran has consistently played for time in order to advance its nuclear program and is hard at work to shield it from potential attack. The international community should have no illusions over the prospect of breakthroughs at the upcoming technical talks in Istanbul on July 3rd.  Unless Iran halts enrichment and permits IAEA inspections, the talks will meet the same fate as all previous negotiation attempts. 

Although, as suggested by the Obama administration, the new crippling sanctions should be given more time to work and may eventually force Tehran to concede, the question is how much longer Iran will continue to resist while racing to insure that its main nuclear facilities become immune to air attacks. There should be no doubt that Iran has and continues to play for time and its behavior only confirms its sinister intentions: Tehran refuses to end the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, is unwilling to ship its current stock of enriched uranium to another country, and averts pertinent questions by the IAEA while denying IAEA inspectors free access to investigate its Fordo and Parchin plants, among others. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, must now be dealt with in the context of what is happening in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria, to force the Mullahs to reconsider their nuclear posturing. 

With the imminent collapse of the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s ambitions to become the regional hegemon could soon further unravel, shattering its influence over a predominantly Shiite crescent extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Tehran and Damascus have been strategic allies since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), in which Syria backed Iran against its fellow Arab state, Iraq. Iran’s interests in Syria are especially critical as Syria acts as the linchpin that provides Iran continued support of its Shiite connection in Iraq and Lebanon, which solidifies the alliance. Iran has a Shiite majority while the ruling minority in Syria is Alawite, a sect of Shiite Islam. Iran’s continued support of Assad’s killing machine by providing funds, arms, and expertise in fighting Syria’s insurgency has made Iran not only complicit in the day-to-day massacres but has painted Iran as the number one enemy of Sunni Muslims. From the Arab youth’s perspective, Iran’s support of the Assad regime stands in total contrast to their aspirations for political freedom and human rights. 

The linkage between Iran’s nuclear program and the upheaval in Syria cannot be overstated. In this context, and with the support of the Arab League, the US and the EU must never give up on the removal of President Assad and his cohorts. In so doing, Iran’s Shiite crescent will be dismantled. Extracting Syria from Iran’s belly will inflict irreparable setbacks to Iran’s regional ambitions, weaken its resolve and force the regime to focus on its own survival as the sanctions become increasingly more crippling. In fact, even before the collapse of the Assad regime, Iran’s relationships with other groups that have acted as the conduit for Tehran’s regional mischief such as Hamas and Hezbollah have frayed as these two organizations in particular are looking to safeguard their own interests. 

Hamas and Iran have historically enjoyed strong bilateral relations and the two have worked in tandem to frustrate Israel’s occupation and undermine its power. As a consequence of Syria’s upheaval, however, the Islamist group has refused to support the regime’s crackdown on its population and decided to abandon its political headquarters in Damascus and relocate it to Doha. The turmoil in Syria has thus severely disrupted the nexus between Iran and Hamas and with that, much of Tehran’s influence on the Palestinians. Moreover, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (of which Hamas is an offshoot) and their full cooperation in the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaves Tehran limited room for further meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while its influence diminishes. 

In addition to losing Hamas, Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah is seriously frayed because of Tehran’s inability to continue its past levels of financial and military support of the group due to the intensified sanctions and the dwindling oil revenue while significant amount of what they can spare is tied up in the upheaval in Syria. Syria functioned as the conduit between Iran and Hezbollah but the preoccupation of the Assad regime with his internal strife has broken the chain of causality between the three actors. Though Hezbollah initially offered unqualified support for Assad, the spillover of violence into northern Lebanon has forced Hezbollah to take a more qualifiedstance on the conflict, placing itself in an awkward position between its popular base and Iran’s fraying regional influence.  

Although on the surface Turkey and Iran have maintained cordial and mutually beneficial relations necessitated by Turkey’s need of Iranian oil, the flare-up in Syria has and continues to pose a serious challenge to Turkey’s bilateral relations with Iran. As Syria is gradually becoming the battleground between the Sunnis and the Shiites, Ankara and Tehran will inevitably try to shape the new emerging political order in Damascus, which is bound to escalate the tension between the two competing powers. There is no doubt that with Turkey’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the support of the Arab states, Ankara will have the upper hand in Syria in any overt or covert operation in the inherent conflict with Iran. As such, Turkey will emerge as the bulwark of the Sunni bloc of states while striking a blow against the dwindling Iranian (and Shiite) regional influence. Finally, the recent Syrian attack on an unarmed Turkish reconnaissance plane has pushed Turkey to move toward confronting the Assad regime. Under such circumstances, Iran will be powerless to stop the superior Turkish military and will be forced to watch their diminishing influence in Syria from the sidelines.

Fundamentally, Iran has two choices. One: the clerics may decide to support the Assad regime to the bitter end, flex their muscles through insurgent proxies in Iraq, push Hezbollah to move against Israel, and hasten the protection of its nuclear program from external attack. The choice to lash out in this manner wouldpresumably provide a greater chance to maintain the Syrian regime and Iran’s grip on power. In reality, waging a campaign on all of these fronts will prove extremely perilous and could pave the way to topple the government. 

Two (the more likely option): the clergy sticks to their desire to preserve the regime, something which is paramount and trumps all other considerations. Under such a scenario, Iran may adopt the path of “strategic retreat” and decide tomake significant concessions on the nuclear front and still claim a victory. Furthermore, Iran would lower its regional profile and await another day to reassert itself or it may peacefully attempt to establish its legitimate regional role by virtue of its history, size, location, and resources. This outcome will ultimately depend on the US’ and EU’s resolve to capitalize on Iran’s growing regional isolation and vulnerability by staying the course on the nuclear issue and maintaining the crippling sanctions while remaining absolutely determined to oust Assad and his culprits from power.

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