Is the U.S. changing sides in the regional conflict between Iran and its enemies?
A report by respected Washington D.C.-based journalist Hussein Abdul Hussein in the Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper this week revealed details of an indirect U.S. channel with Hizballah. The report comes, of course, close on the heels of the interim agreement concluded between the P5 + 1 and Iran allowing the latter to continue to enrich uranium.
News items are also surfacing suggesting a stark split between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over regional policy in general and policy toward Syria in particular. Saudi officials are going on the record expressing their alarm at the direction of American policy. Happily stirring the pot, some Iran-associated outlets have suggested that Washington is actively seeking to rein back Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who favors a hard line against Iranian interference in the region.
Meanwhile, agreement has now been reached over the long postponed “Geneva 2” conference to discuss the war in Syria. The conference will go ahead because U.S.-backed Syrian opposition representatives abandoned their demand that President Assad could have no part in any transitional phase of government in the country.
What does all this add up to? There are an increasing number of voices who perceive a shape behind all these details: namely, an effort by the current U.S. administration to turn the Iranian regime from an adversary into a partner. The method: acceding in part or whole to key Iranian demands.
Let’s take a look at each item in more detail.
The usually reliable Hussein Abdul Hussein’s report details the mechanism by which the U.S. is speaking to Hizballah, in spite of that organization being a U.S.-designated terrorist group. British diplomats are the ones who do the talking. The channel of communication between UK officials and the “political wing” of the movement was recently revived, in tune with the improving relations between London and Teheran. It is now serving to transfer messages between Washington and Teheran.
An unnamed diplomatic source quoted by Abdul Hussein explained that this dialogue is “designed to keep pace with the changes in the region and the world, and the potential return of Iran to the international community.” The official went on to explain that because the U.S. does not concur with the (British, entirely fictitious) division of Hizballah into”political” and “military” wings, direct dialogue is currently not possible.
The report goes on to outline moments in recent months when the U.S. has found itself on the “same page” as Hizballah. One of these, very notably, was the occasion in June when the Lebanese Army, together with Hizballah fighters, fought against the partisans of the pro al-Qaeda Salafi preacher Ahmed al-Assir in the Lebanese town of Sidon. The U.S.-backed the army, without reference to the key role played by Hizballah fighters in the action, which resulted in al-Assir’s defeat.
The other was the U.S. condemnation of the recent al-Qaeda linked bombing at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The condemnation, well noted in Lebanon, did not contain any reference to the presence of Iranian and Hizballah fighters in Syria.
Thus far the Abdul Hussein report. It tells us that the U.S. “outreach” to Iran is not on the nuclear file alone. Rather, even before any comprehensive agreement is reached, Washington appears to have begun to dismantle the carefully assembled diplomatic structure seeking to contain Iranian regional ambitions.
Even Teheran’s proxy Hizballah, which killed 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, is evidently now a fit subject for communication, as part of Iran’s return to the “international community.”
Reports suggesting U.S. reining in of Bandar are somewhat less reliable, coming as they do from pro-Iran and pro-Hizballah media outlets (al-Manar and the Revolutionary Guards associated Fars News Agency). But certainly the deep Saudi frustrations with the direction of U.S. policy are not an invention of pro-Iran propagandists.
Nawaf Obeid, a senior adviser to the Saudi royal family, this week accused Washington of deceiving Riyadh over the Iran nuclear deal. “We were lied to, things were hidden from us,” Obeid told an audience in London, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph.
He went on to vow continued Saudi resistance to Iranian machinations across the region. In particular, he expressed Saudi determination to turn back the Iranians in Syria. “We cannot accept Revolutionary Guards running around Homs,” the adviser said.
But this defiant tone appears in stark contrast to the developing U.S. position. The Geneva 2 conference is now scheduled to take place on January 22nd. It is a U.S.-sponsored affair. It is not yet clear if Iran itself will be there.
But what is clear is that the conference will take place entirely according to the agenda of the Assad regime and its backers. That is – the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition will directly face the regime, while the regime now flatly rejects any notion of its stepping down.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, humming with the old Ba’athist rhetoric, the Syrian foreign ministry said that “The official Syrian delegation is not going to Geneva to surrender power… The age of colonialism, with the installation and toppling of governments, is over. They must wake from their dreams.”
The armed rebels will not be sending representatives to the conference. They, financed and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have formed a new “Islamic Front” which is battling the regime around Damascus, in Aleppo, and in the border region of Qalamun this week. The military advantage continues to ebb and flow.
But the stark contrast between the U.S.-led diplomacy and the events on the ground is another clear reminder of the extent to which Washington’s position has moved away from confrontation, away from Riyadh – and toward Teheran.
Assad has revived his fortunes in the course of 2013 mainly because of the massive Iranian assistance he has received. Washington, which officially backs the opposition, appears to be sponsoring a conference which will crown this achievement.
So is the U.S. in fact changing sides in the contest between Iran and those regional forces seeking to contain and turn back its advance?
Michael Doran of the Brookings Institute, suggested this week that Washington is in the first phase of seeking a “strategic partnership” with Iran, an “entente cordiale” which would see a U.S.-Iranian alliance forming a linchpin of regional stability.
If this is indeed what the welter of evidence detailed above portends, then the Middle East is headed into a dangerous period indeed. As Doran also notes, there is no reason at all to think that Iranian designs for regional hegemony have been abandoned.
The effect of U.S. overtures to Teheran and undermining of allies will be to build the Iranians’ appetite. This will serve to intensify their continued efforts at expansion. The corresponding efforts by other regional powers, Israel and Saudi Arabia chief among them, to resist this process will also increase. That, in turn, is likely to mean greater instability across the region. An eventual direct collision could result.