As it inches toward nuclear weapons capability, Iran is taking steps designed primarily to deter a pre-emptive strike by Israel or the United States.
The main focus, analysts here say, is to keep Syria in the Iranian orbit and to prevent Saudi Arabia from playing an active role in the latest American-sponsored Middle East peacemaking initiative.
The Iranian strategy is two-pronged:
* to undermine the American peace initiative, thereby perpetuating Middle Eastern chaos in Iraq and significantly reducing America’s political will for a showdown with Iran;
* to beef up the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas missile threat against Israel. With the prospect of simultaneous missile attacks on all parts of the country from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iran itself, Israel would think long and hard, according to this plan, before even contemplating a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Iranian energy points to the fact that there are strong countervailing forces at work: President Bush’s recent initiative to create conditions for real dialogue between Israel and moderate Palestinians, and a fairly advanced Turkish effort to promote an Israel-Syria deal.
Clearly an active Saudi peacemaking role in the region or an Israeli-Syrian peace deal could upset Iran’s plans. This was the context of strong Iranian messages to Riyadh and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s July 19 visit to Damascus, just two days after Syria’s newly re-elected President Bashar Assad spoke about possible peace moves with Israel.
The day after Ahmadinejad visited Damascus, a report in the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat claimed that the Iranian president had promised to foot the bill for $1 billion in advanced weapons for Syria if Damascus promised not to pursue peace talks with Israel.
Iran immediately denied the report and Israeli intelligence officials said they strongly doubted the accuracy of its details. The report had claimed that the money would be for advanced Russian tanks, fighter planes and helicopters; that Iran would help Syria build a factory for medium-range rockets; and and that it would provide assistance in nuclear research and the development of chemical weapons.
Still, Israeli officials argue that even if the details were inaccurate, Iran has been investing heavily for some time in a significant Syrian arms build-up and in Syria’s economic infrastructure with a view toward keeping Damascus in its sphere of influence. Indeed, ever since early 2005, Iranian investments in Syria have been freeing up Syrian capital for the purchase of Russian arms, including sophisticated air defense systems and anti-tank weapons.
Assad, keenly aware of how much Iran needs his support and how much the West would like to have Syria on the other side of the strategic equation, is playing a double game: Keeping close to Tehran while intimating that under certain conditions, he might be prepared to switch sides.
This is reminiscent of the brinkmanship at which his late father Hafez Assad excelled, and seems to be calculated to raise the price Iran or the West would have to pay for Syria’s allegiance.
In his re-election speech to parliament in mid-July, Assad laid down tough conditions for peace talks with Israel: first, Israel would have to provide a commitment in writing to hand over the strategic Golan Heights should negotiations succeed; second, he rejected Israel’s call for direct, secret talks, saying Syria would only be ready for public talks through the good offices of a third party.
At the same time, he revealed that progress had been made in secret negotiations through a third party. A few weeks earlier, U.N. special Middle East envoy Michael Williams came away from talks with high-ranking Syrian officials under the impression that Syria was ready to break its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas once peace with Israel was achieved.
In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Williams said he had conveyed his impression to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, adding that he thought a breakthrough on the Israeli-Syria track was possible.
“The Syrian side has basically said, ‘Look the work is done. It’s here in the drawer,’ ” Williams said.
Referring to Israeli-Syrian peace talks in 2000, Williams was quoted saying: “The big issues like water, security, access were all looked at then, were pretty much thrashed out. So if negotiations were resumed, then maybe we could make real progress.”
So far, the United States has not been prepared to become involved in Israeli-Syrian peacemaking. This vacuum apparently has been filled by Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who has been mediating between the parties for months. In his speech, however, Assad intimated that there was a limit to how far this channel could go and there would have to be public talks through another third party.
Although he didn’t spell it out, it was clear Assad meant the United States. Only with the United States deeply involved, and ready to make commitments to Syria, would Assad be ready to break with Iran, Israeli Syria watchers say.
Despite Assad’s double game Iran, at least for now, seems to have the Damascus-Jerusalem peace track well blocked.
The Iranians also seem to have had success in deterring Saudi Arabia from playing a leading role in pushing the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which has since become the Arab League peace plan. That plan calls for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory and the resolution of Palestinian refugee demands in return for peace with all 22 Arab countries and the Palestinians.
Israeli intelligence officials claim the Saudis are terrified at the prospect of terror in the kingdom launched by Iran or al-Qaida if they press too hard for regional peace with Israel as stipulated in the initiative.
The lead in carrying the Arab peace plan, therefore, has been taken by Egypt and Jordan — two countries that already have peace with Israel. Their foreign ministers are due in Israel to discuss the initiative this week. Israeli and American officials are deeply disappointed that the Saudis have failed to join them, believing that open Saudi contacts with Israel could have served as a powerful signal for other moderate states.
Although the Saudis have welcomed Bush’s call for a regional peace conference — probably to be held in the United States in September — they have not said whether they will attend. Bush, afraid the Saudis might decline, did not specifically mention the names of moderate states he intended to invite. How to get the Saudis to be more proactive will be a major American policy challenge in the run-up to the peace parley.
Otherwise Israel and the United States may find themselves outmaneuvered by Iran on the Syrian, the moderate Arab and the Palestinian tracks.