by Jonathan Spyer
The Jerusalem Post
November 30, 2013
A report by respected Washington-based journalist Hussein Abdul Hussein in the Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper this week revealed details of an indirect US channel with Hezbollah.
The report comes, of course, close on the heels of the interim agreement concluded in Geneva between the P5 + 1 world powers and Iran, allowing the latter to continue to enrich uranium.
News items are also surfacing suggesting a stark split between the US 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 in Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who favors a hardline 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 US-backed Syrian opposition representatives abandoned their demand that President Bashar 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 which perceive a shape behind all these details: Namely, an effort by the current US 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 Abdul Hussein’s report details the mechanism by which the US is speaking to Hezbollah, in spite of that organization being a US-designated terrorist group. British diplomats are the ones doing 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 Tehran.
It is now serving to transfer messages between Washington and Tehran.
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 US does not concur with the (British, entirely fictitious) division of Hezbollah into “political” and “military” wings, direct dialogue is currently not possible.
The report goes on to outline moments in recent months when the US has found itself on the same page as Hezbollah. One of these, very notably, was the occasion in June when the Lebanese Army, together with Hezbollah fighters, fought against the partisans of the pro al-Qaida Salafi preacher Ahmad al-Assir in the Lebanese town of Sidon. The US backed the army, without reference to the key role played by Hezbollah fighters in the action, which resulted in al-Assir’s defeat.
The other was the US condemnation of the recent al-Qaida-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 Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
The Abdul Hussein report also tells us the US “outreach” to Iran has not been on the nuclear file alone. Rather, even before any comprehensive agreement was reached, Washington appears to have begun to dismantle the carefully assembled diplomatic structure seeking to contain Iranian regional ambitions.
Even Tehran’s proxy Hezbollah, which killed 241 US 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 American efforts to contain Bandar are somewhat less reliable, coming as they do from pro-Iran and pro-Hezbollah media outlets (al-Manar and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards-associated Fars News Agency). But certainly, the deep Saudi frustrations with the direction of US policy are not an invention of pro-Iran propagandists.
Nawaf Obaid, 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,” Obaid 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 US position.
The Geneva 2 conference is now scheduled to take place on January 22. It is a US-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 US-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, “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” that is battling the regime around Damascus, in Aleppo and in the border region of Qalamoun this week. The military advantage continues to ebb and flow.
But the stark contrast between the US-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 Tehran.
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 US 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 US-Iranian alliance forming a lynchpin of regional stability.
If this is truly 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 US overtures to Tehran 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 – and an eventual direct collision could result.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs(GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.