Friday 4 January 2013

Will Obama sell Syria for a grand bargain with Iran?

The following Qs and As are from yesterday’s Daily Press Briefing by the State Department’s spokesperson Victoria Nuland:
QUESTION: Yeah, and my second question: There are a group of experts that are trying to tie the Iran nuclear issue with Syria as part of a grand bargain. You oppose that kind of connection, do you?
MS. NULAND: I’m not sure which group of experts you’re talking about or what their plan is, but obviously we deal with Iran on the Iran issues; we deal with Syria on the Syria issues. I’m not sure that we --
QUESTION: Right. But you don’t favor – by tying – when you talk to the Russians, because it all involves Russia, when you’re talking to the Russians, you don’t favor combining let’s say the nuclear issue of Iran with that of Syria or the departure of Bashar al-Assad?
MS. NULAND: I’m not even sure how one could package that except to say that we are concerned, as we’ve said all along, about increasingly nefarious activity by Iran in support of Assad inside Syria. But with regard to the nuclear file, that is a separate and distinct issue, and you know how we’re working on that.
QUESTION: The reason I ask this is because Mr. Levitte, the former French ambassador in this town [who last October joined the Brookings Institution as a distinguished fellow], basically suggested that any kind of deal with the Russians on Syria ought to include the issue of Iran. So – and he has a lot of cohorts in this town.
MS. NULAND: I haven’t seen what he has in mind. I have a lot of respect for Jean-David Levitte, but I haven’t seen his particular ideas.
Chances of a grand bargain were raised last November 30 after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- speaking at a gala dinner for American and Israeli officials, experts and diplomats at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy -- said Washington was ready for bilateral talks if Tehran is “ever ready.”
The grand bargain would for instance put on the table: Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its leverage in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen, its ambition to resume the role of U.S.-backed policeman of the Gulf, and its hostility towards Israel.
In exchange, Iran would probably ask Washington for security guarantees, the full recognition of its legitimate interests, influence and status in the region, the lifting of investment, financial and trade sanctions, accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and a promise never to push for regime change.
Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent in Washington and New York for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, today revives rumors of a great bargain in the making as President Barack Obama lines up his second-term dream team ahead of his second inauguration.
The guessing game ahead of the January 20 inauguration includes hush-hush discussions between the U.S. administration and Russia on a trade-off, she writes. “Tehran ‘freezes’ its nuclear program in exchange for giving Damascus a green light to scorch the earth wherever Syrian opposition forces have a foothold.”
Russia’s role, Dergham explains, is to “sponsor” the U.S. deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Moscow would convince Tehran leaders to freeze their nuclear program in return for the U.S. recognizing Iran’s regional role, not only in Iraq but in, and via, Syria.
“The latest rumor says the Russians are trying to convince the Obama camp that all the U.S. president needs to do is ‘turn a blind eye’ or ‘look the other way’ until Damascus forces crush the armed opposition, eradicating the Jihadists in the process.
“Execution of such a ‘scorched earth’ policy requires regime forces to regroup and launch a qualitative blitzkrieg, using all their resources with the exception of chemical weapons.
“Russia is only asking the U.S. to get ‘sidetracked’ pending execution of the qualitative offensive. In Russia’s opinion it is a price the administration would need to pay to win an Iranian freeze on its nuclear program…”
According to Dergham, Russia believes it can “hit two birds with one stone: (1) Give Syrian President Assad and his regime the opportunity to crush the armed opposition and eradicate jihadists and (2) Spare Iran a military showdown with the United States and/or Israel.”
 She says, “Obama would be committing a costly strategic mistake if he approved such a bargain. He would be winning a tactical deferral of a nuclear-armed Iran but consenting to a pogrom in Syria that effectively boosts the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hegemony in the region.
“President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter…
“The Syria war could become Obama’s if he were to endorse the supposed bargain, handing Syria to the Islamic Republic on a second silver platter. Should that happen, Obama would go down in history as having allowed Iran to become a nuclear state with legitimate regional hegemony…”
But perhaps, Dergham concludes, “all this chit-chat about bargains in the making is meant to cover the realities of added isolation and sanctions on Iran, of Russia’s declining influence in the region and on the United States, and of the fast approaching collapse of the regime in Damascus.”