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Syria and Iran, a diplomatic tunnel

The rivalry and mistrust around Syria's conflict and Iran's nuclear programme, including between Russia and the United States, make international progress on the issues ever less likely.

Paul Rogers
25 June 2012

The last of three scheduled international meetings on the Iranian nuclear issue took place in Moscow on 18-19 June 2012. The inconclusive ending justified the modest expectations raised by the earlier ones in Istanbul and Baghdad. A "suspension" of talks was announced on 25 June, and an "expert-level meeting" in Istanbul on 3 July to examine whether a way forward can be found provides little ground for optimism. 

The immediate prospects seem poor. The atmosphere between Iran and the "P5+1" (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) will deteriorate further when additional sanctions against Iran come into effect. The conflict of perceptions is sharp: Tehran thinks western powers want to delay discussions in order to weaken its economy, some politicians in the west think Iran wants the delay so it can accelerate its nuclear ambitions.

In face of this mutual suspicion, several independent groups have been seeking to convene Iranian and western specialists in so-called "track-two" negotiations. The participants in such discussions usually have no official status, but they do have sufficient contacts to ensure their discussions can be reported back to respective leaderships.

Some of these meetings have been positive, and show the potential for progress (see "Iran's nuclear impasse: breaking the deadlock", Oxford Research Group, 1 May 2012)  But if the Iran negotiations are seen in the wider context of current developments in Syria, then the cause for concern deepens.

The political drive

The continuing violence in Syria is acquiring ever more of the character of a "proxy war" (see "Syria, the proxy war", 14 June 2012). There is now abundant evidence that Saudi Arabia is leading the way in arming the rebels. The United States supports this process, and is deploying CIA personnel in eastern Turkey to help it along (see Eric Schmitt, "CIA Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition", New York Times, 22 June 2012). Iran, the main ally of Damascus in the region, is doing its best on the other side to maintain the Syrian government in power.

Iran's attitude is hardened further by Saudi support for Bahrain, whose royal family is determined to curtail demands from the island's Shi'a majority for political reform. Saudi troops remain present in the kingdom, while the United States - much to the anger of Bahrain's Shi'a - resumes the supply of arms (see Kareem Fahim, "As Hopes for Reform Fade in Bahrain, Protesters Turn Anger on United States", New York Times, 24 June 2012).

The whole situation is even more worrying because current regional enmities are being driven by electoral timetables (especially, though not only, in the United States) as well as events. Barack Obama's campaign to stay in the White House has more than four months to run, but it is already clear that Mitt Romney's powerful financial support guarantees a very close race. Romney's team will focus primariliy on the domestic economy, but will also be alert to any opportunity to cast Obama as a weak incumbent who is incapable of protecting US interests abroad. The "greater middle east", including Iran and Israel, will be a principal focus of its watchful gaze.

This gives Obama very little room for manoeuvre on either Syria or Iran. Even the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi in Egypt's presidential election will be cast in the American campaign hothouse as evidence of Washington's declining power in the region. The more partisan allies of Israel will add their weight to the argument, especially over Iran. In Israel itself, Binyamin Netanyahu's reinvigoration of his coalition government further narrows Obama's political space in the run-up period.

The home abroad

A cautiously hopeful suggestion of progress in the bleak Syrian situation is that the United States and Russia are reported to be involved in quiet moves to enable Bashar al-Assad to stand down. There are other indications, however, that Russian attitudes to Syria and Iran are being dictated more by domestic politics in the wake of Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency (see Pavel Felgenhauer, "Internal crisis shapes Putin's foreign policy", Asia Times, 24 June 2012).

Putin may have won his own presidential election in March 2012 with ease, but this took place amid a period of growing opposition. This stems partly from anger at the cronyism which pervades Russia's political order, partly from the corruption that bedevils the police and judiciary. The increasing dissent, even among previously apolitical urban middle-class groups, triggers repression by the state which in turn hardens citizens' anger.

In response, Putin resorts to a familiar self-portrayal as the only leader able to ensure that Russia stays a major player on the world stage. Defiance of the west is a key ingredient of the claim, one that still strikes a chord with many older Russians who recall with a degree of pride the cold-war era when Russia (in its Soviet guise) was a superpower.

In these circumstances, the timing begins to seem wrong for effective and reasonable compromises on both Iran and Syria. The fact that domestic political circumstances in the United States and Russia - which in themselves have little or nothing to do with the actual problems in the region - makes the situation even more dismaying.

A diplomatic advance will thus require commitment and persistence from other parties. The most important and in principle likely source - Europe - is, however, also preoccupied with its own financial and political crises. The absence of solace here too suggests that the limited promise of progress over Syria and Iran may not be realised, at least this side of 2013. Any sudden escalation in the interim period will thus be even more testing and potentially dangerous for all concerned.

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