Wednesday 16 May 2012

Israel loves Iran (or does it?)

Michael Young

Talks between Iran and P5+1. Photo: Gettyimages.
The people of Israel are rightly becoming increasingly anxious. What lies in store for their country is far from certain – one week the headlines are that Tel Aviv is planning an imminent strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, the next week Iran has announced that it is prepared to enter into negotiations (which is normally followed by Israel playing down the suggestion that war is on the cards). As I stated in my previous article on the issue of the nuclear question, there are clearly many in the Israeli government that believe time is running out to halt the Iranian nuclear programme, and that a strike should be soon, regardless of the consequences. 
One group of Israelis, recognising this, have decided to act. The recently launched ‘Israel loves Iran’ campaign reflects the worry and uncertainty amongst ordinary citizens. It has gained momentum fast – their most recent video acquired over half a million views on YouTube within about 10 days. The message behind the campaign is powerful and all too often forgotten in war –‘we don’t even know you’. It is, of course, easier to judge opinion in Israel than in Iran, but it is certainly hard to see many Israelis supporting war, knowing that the consequences could easily be rockets from Iranian terrorist organisations in Palestine being directed towards them in response.  Whether or not the campaign becomes internationally renowned and effective may determine whether social networking could be used in this way to prevent war in the future.  
Whilst Iran may be in the later stages of Uranium enrichment, there IS still time to work with the regime and come to some sort of agreement. Sanctions are starting to bite and Iran is feeling the pressure – there are certainly signs that diplomacy could be working.
According to Reuters, A new round of talks are to be held in Turkey in April between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). It’s been over a year now since the last of such talks in January 2011 broke down, and hopefully this spring will see some progress over the nuclear issue and not an Israeli airstrike as previously suggested by Leon Panetta. The fact remains that Iran does not currently possess nuclear weapons, and if Israel did strike then any weapons programme would be nothing other than delayed, simultaneously giving Iran a more conventional reason to detest the state other than anti-Zionism. Indeed, Iran would have more reason to pursue a weapon than ever before, making future confrontation highly likely. If talks are to happen, they have to happen soon – it was recently reported that later this year may see a conference in Helsinki designed to end the dispute diplomatically and perhaps even move towards a ban of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but the fact that it is scheduled for December could be too little too late.
However, it has been well documented that Israel would have significant difficulty in implementing the attack successfully anyway, which could be a reason as to why it seems to have been recently relying on Mossad-led covert action instead. Iran’s nuclear programme is dispersed throughout the country at various underground sites – Fordo, for example, is 295 feet underground, and Israel simply do not possess the technology to destroy it. It would have to rely on a significant amount of help and firepower from the United States in order to annihilate Iran’s nuclear programme.
The UK is still waiting for sanctions to take full effect before it takes any further action, and the impact of sanctions will not be clear until either July, when they are comprehensively implemented, or if Iran gives in and concedes economic defeat before then, returning to the negotiating table. Yet with the ‘BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) recently suggesting that they are certainly not bound by sanctions against Iran, it is hard to see Iran having a severe problem shifting their oil in the immediate future. According to the FCO, Britain wants to restore good relations with Iran at some point, but not until the nuclear question has been solved. It has even set up a new website recently called ‘UK for Iranians’ with the objective of stimulating dialogue between the Iranian people and the UK to make up for the lack of an embassy in Tehran.
Any resolve on the issue is still far from imminent. Whilst the P5+1 states will go into any possible talks next month with only one objective – to get Iran to dismantle its nuclear programme – Iran might see this as an opportunity to gain some significant concessions in return. Tehran isn’t going to give up without a fight, especially as the West has dithered for some time now, allowing the programme to develop into an extensive, costly web of operations scattered throughout the country. Maybe the message that ‘Israel loves Iran’ will fully reach the Iranian people and the regime will be pressured to change course. Optimistic, to say the least. 

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Engaging Moscow: Removing Asad without civil war

William Smith

Friends Forever? The Kremlin may soon realise its regional interests are better served without Asad. CNN.
With a tentative ceasefire agreement that is almost certainly doomed to fail, and amid the UK’s promises to increase its material support for the opposition, the international community’s stance on Syria appears to be moving irrevocably beyond diplomacy. But is there an alternative to solving the crisis? As Russia starts to move away from its resolute support of Asad, the key may well be for the West to engage Moscow, and to take seriously its ‘strategic interests’ in Syria.

William Hague’s recent pledge to increase the UK’s material support for the Syrian opposition – along with similar promises from the US and the Gulf states – is a clear sign that the international community is rapidly losing patience with its tentative diplomatic approach to the crisis. Talk of ‘non-lethal aid’ is a euphemistic pledge of support to one side in a full-blown civil war. Indeed, there seems to be growing support amongst commentators for this sanitised and indirect approach as a means to hasten the downfall of the Asad regime, as evidenced by Paul Collier’s recent op-ed in the Financial Times.

But as numerous commentators have pointed out, a military solution in Syria – whether by foreign intervention or by arming the rebels – is likely to make things much worse, fuelling a sectarian conflict and ensuring regional instability for years to come. As an alternative, critics of militarisation see UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan as a potential solution, and advocate a negotiated solution with the Asad regime.  While diplomacy should never be ruled out, and although the current ceasefire has yielded a (temporary) diminution of the violence, the outcome of the Anan plan will satisfy neither party in the conflict. For the opposition, a ceasefire does nothing to advance their demands for Asad to leave, while for the regime the full-implementation of the plan is a non-starter as it calls for political transition, something the regime is inherently incapable of doing.

In light of the desultory array of options available to the international community, is there really no alternative to militarisation or futile diplomacy? To many observers, Russia has long been the key to solving the Syrian crisis. Russian intransigence to the UN Security Council resolution against Asad in February was motivated by Russia’s economic and strategic interests in Syria, but also by a desire to teach the West a lesson for what it saw as NATO excesses in Libya. But as Middle East analyst Paul Salem points out, Moscow’s strategic calculus must inevitably change once it realises that Asad cannot cling to power long-term. Russia will not agree to the militarisation of the Syrian crisis, but it might be persuaded to abandon Asad in favour of the ‘controlled-collapse’ of the regime’s inner core. 

Bringing about a partial transition of the Syrian regime would equate to engineering a ‘palace coup’ – in effect, persuading mid to senior members of the government, security and armed forces that their only chance for political and even physical survival is to abandon Asad and his inner core of advisers. The regime’s inner circle has resolved to crushing the Syrian uprising by force; it has nothing to negotiate for, and will either win or die by the sword. So long as Western states continue to call for total regime change in Damascus, and the Syrian opposition offers ambiguous guarantees for religious minorities and current regime members, there has been little incentive for those outside of the inner circle to abandon Asad.

Such a move could be seen as a cynical betrayal of the Syrian people’s demands for a genuine political transformation, but it is perhaps the only solution that could avoid the inevitability of a bloodbath, precisely because it takes seriously the interests of both parties; moreover, it is not particularly different from the compromise solution pursued by Britain and the US in Yemen. If the West is prepared to allow only incremental change in countries where it has key ‘strategic interests’, such as Yemen and Bahrain, it should accept that Russia has similar concerns in Syria, and accept that a compromise solution in Syria that ends the violence and guarantees the interests of regime officials outside of the core elite, is perhaps the best option.

The idea of a ‘controlled demolition’ or palace coup is not as far-fetched as it may sound. According to a leaked diplomatic cable from 2006, US officials believed that military force would not be necessary to bring about regime change in Damascus, but that rather a “gesture of support” might be sufficient to encourage an internal regime coup. A second cable from the same year indicates that a “retired senior Alawite military officer” had tried to sound out US willingness to support a palace coup, and suggests that Asad’s popularity among the Alawi population as a whole was weak. A third cable, meanwhile, spells out the dilemma for non-elite regime figures more clearly – “Do regime pillars (mostly Alawite) stand with Asad and risk possibly losing power completely, or [do they] move against him?” 

The fact that Alawis and other regime figures have not moved against Asad since the start of uprising over a year ago is indicative of Asad’s success in playing the sectarian card, convincing wavering supporters that their only hope is to rally behind his rule. But it also suggests that Western states, along with the Syrian opposition, have not ensured sufficient guarantees for their future in a post-Asad Syria. For example, Western support for the opposition could have been made on condition of written guarantees and a political framework ensuring the protection of minorities and government officials; instead, visions of post-Asad politics remain vague, and the Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that its adherence to ‘pluralistic civil society’ is not the same thing as a secular society. 

Of course, it may well be too late to hope that regime figures will move against Asad and his clique, in which case nothing short of civil war is Syria’s most likely fate. But if, as it seems, Russia is starting to edge away from Asad, it might be the best compromise solution, and the only solution that avoids continuing the bloodshed. Shrill Western denunciations of Russia have done little to encourage Moscow to abandon its support for the Asad clique, but if Russia is starting to realise that its interests are best served in ensuring a ‘controlled transition’ in Damascus, the West should do more to engage it.