The events we are now witnessing in the Middle East, the “United States’ accidental diplomacy” regarding Syria1 and renewed talk of the resolution of Iran’s nuclear programme were unexpected a few weeks ago. Having declared that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” the Syrian leadership should not cross, the US has now accepted Russian proposals for a ‘diplomatic solution’.
If the original decision to launch a ‘limited military strike’ was unpopular, retreating from it has proved as unpopular and, both in the US and beyond, critics claim that the climbdown is an expression of indecision, of weakness. Of course, there are no guarantees that the agreement between the US and Russian foreign ministers struck on September 14 will lead to any kind of the resolution. Disarmament is a conflicted process at the best of times, but in the midst of a civil war, with both sides accusing the other of unleashing chemical weapons, with the state and sections of the opposition unleashing gratuitous violence against civilians, it is unlikely that the current deal will be the end of the affair.
A series of unexpected events left the US administration with little choice. First, there was (and is) some cynicism in most western countries regarding claims of justifying war on the basis of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Iraq war created distrust even amongst the most die-hard supporters of imperialism. Austerity and the continuing effects of the financial crisis have also played a part in generating a mood of opposition to a Syrian war. The result is that parliamentarians in the UK voted down Cameron’s attempt to join a rapid US attack and all the signs were that Congress was unlikely to endorse Obama either. In many ways the Russian proposal for a compromise, a few days after the US had tried to gain the support of allies at the G20 conference, saved the administration from further humiliation. Probably that is why it was accepted, even though no-one can be under any illusion that it will end the Syrian conflict.
Against this, and irrespective of the specifics of the Syrian conflict, US backtracking will have international repercussions. According to the Washington Times, Obama’s “red line” vow turned a lighter shade of pink, with secretary of state John Kerry saying a US military strike “might” be necessary if talks led by Russia fail to compel Syria to turn over its chemical weapons.2
In the Middle East, mainly amongst America’s Sunni allies, the Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the jihadists in the Syrian opposition, there is anger. Meanwhile at home, Republicans who had given their support for military action are not pleased with the retreat. Some have argued that, by attempting to deal with too many issues, ranging from humanitarian intervention to restraining ‘Iranian aggression’ and ending its nuclear programme, the administration lost its way.
There is no doubt that many Republicans were sold the idea of supporting the attack on the basis that it would send the right warning to Iran. According to senator John McCain, “This is really about Iran and their continued development of nuclear weapons. If we stand by and watch chemical weapons being used, what signal do you think that sends to Iran and North Korea?”3
Doubtless, Obama, in advocating a limited military strike on Syria, was also thinking about Iranian nuclear capabilities: “Failure to act would embolden Assad’s ally, Iran.” He later added that recent negotiations over Syria could still deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons, even though the US had not used force to address the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.
So could it be that the threat of limited military action against Syria was a warning to Iran all along? Certainly over the last few weeks Iran’s tone regarding its nuclear programme and the possible resumption of talks with the US has changed considerably.
Since late August, the new government in Iran has embarked on a major diplomatic offensive. In the last couple of weeks alone we have had, for example, president Hasan Rowhani’s Jewish New Year message. A twitter account in the name of the Iranian president (by all accounts with his permission) was used to state, in English: “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah.” Contrary to Israeli reports, there has been no denial by the presidential office that this was a genuine tweet. Clearly an aide sent the message, but there seems little doubt that Rowhani was aware of it and approved. Later Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a twitter exchange with the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the US congress minority leader, distanced himself from Iran’s last president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had called the holocaust a “myth”.
Change of heart
So why the change of heart in Tehran? What has made Iran’s clerical dictators keen to compromise? First of all, the effects of sanctions. The country is on its knees. For years Iran’s rulers deluded themselves that oil exports and the banking system would go unaffected.4 They were mistaken and the US has won the cold war against the Islamic Republic. Sanctions have indeed brought the country’s economy to a virtual standstill. There is a shortage of basic food and medication, Iranians drive dangerous cars, because spare parts are unavailable, and they fly in aeroplanes using inadequate, faulty, old components. Premature babies die because incubators can have ‘dual use’ (apparently the technology can be also used in nuclear plants) and so it is difficult to repair them. Children also die from out-of-date, dangerous vaccines, again because the correct vaccines cannot be imported. Iranian patients die because of shortages of surgical equipments and drugs.
The car industry, petrochemicals and a large part of manufacturing have come to a standstill and as a result more than a third of the population is unemployed. The rate of ‘growth’ is -5.4% and the population is understandably angry both with western powers which have imposed sanctions and their own rulers whose nuclear policies and adventurism have provided imperialism with the excuse. The election of Rowhani was an expression of the desire for change in foreign policy. The new government is now desperately trying to make the right noises. However, before anyone gets too excited, it should be noted that last week Iran’s supreme leader warned the new government not to trust “foreign powers”. Iran “should not be duped,” declared ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And at the end of the day he is the man who will make the decision about nuclear negotiations. Khamenei later added that he is “not against diplomacy”, but he remains unconvinced that the US wants a resolution of the nuclear issue.
Khamenei and the more conservative factions in the Iranian majles (parliament) are also reminding Rowhani that previous overtures to the US did not yield results. In 2003, when Iranian and US interests over Iraq converged, president Mohammad Khatami (like Rowhani a ‘reformist’), managed to convince the supreme leader to accept a series of proposals for better relations with US. The package included acceptance of tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency in exchange for “full access to peaceful nuclear technology”, and a policy change to Israel in return for a withdrawal to 1967 borders. According to a number of political memoirs written by high-ranking US officials, Washington flatly rejected the overture.
So the last attempt at diplomacy, far from bringing about a rapprochement, left Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’. Apparently this incident had a deep psychological impact on Iran’s supreme leader.
So, while the presidential office in Tehran has launched a diplomatic offensive, US officials point to an intercepted message urging attacks on the US embassy in Iraq along with other targets if a military strike on Syria occurred. According to the Wall Street Journal, Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods force, pulls the strings of the Iranian-supported Shiite militias in Iraq.
Rowhani, however, insists that in the event of a military strike against Syria, Iran will only send medical aid: “If something happens to the Syrian people, the Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duties to send them food and medicine.” For his part, the supreme leader has warned that the US would be making a big mistake if it attacked and would “definitely suffer” as a result. But the reality is that, for all the talk of retaliation, Iran is in no position to make the US “suffer.” Everyone knows that the supreme leader’s comments amount to no more than the threat of a minor action by Hezbollah or a limited militia operation in Iraq.
The Israeli government is keen to pour cold water on any rapprochement between the US and Iran. Netanyahu’s response to the tweeted peace messages was clear: “I am not impressed by the blessings uttered by a regime that just last week threatened to destroy the state of Israel.” He warned the ‘international community’ not to be “deceived” and called on it to focus instead on Tehran’s ‘continued pursuit’ of nuclear weapons. That is why the pro-Israeli press in the US and elsewhere has concentrated on the more antagonistic messages coming out of Iran regarding the possible implication of US intervention in Syria.
In the midst of all the threats of war and promises of peace, it is quite clear that, as far the US and its allies are concerned, negotiations will have nothing to do with the suffering of either ordinary Syrians or Iranians. It is all about furthering imperialism’s strategic interests in the region.