The new alliance troubling Tehran

The collapse of the Syrian regime would represent a grave strategic loss for Tehran at every level, from Iraq to Israel -- through Hezbollah -- to the Gulf region and the Arab peninsula, up to the Iranian interior.

By: Raghida Dergham *

As of late, Iran has returned sharply into the limelight, owing to the developments in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran itself. The ruling mullahs’ regime in Tehran is showing signs of increased tension and confusion, delusion and befuddlement, and perhaps even miscalculated escalation in lieu of the regime’s usual political shrewdness and composure.

The regional cards held by the Islamic Republic have been all but undermined, with the contagion of the Arab Spring now finding its way to the Iranian interior. In truth, the ruling regime in Syria — Tehran’s main Arab strategic ally — is falling apart. Its key ally — Hezbollah in Lebanon — is covering its weakness by a show of force and is increasingly wary of the repercussions of the developments in Syria. This is not to mention the Party of God’s fear from the ramifications of the indictment issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and other measures being taken in the course of the international crackdown on terrorism and drug trafficking.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Iran’s undeclared backyard, Tehran’s weapon remains a double-edged sword, as orchestrating bombings there or filling ministerial portfolios will not appease anger at the Iranian meddling. Instead, it may prompt it to explode in the face of the regime, which fears an uprising beyond its borders that would have an even bigger impact within. There is also Yemen, which had been a key element of the strategy pursued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, to lay siege to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yet the alertness of the Yemeni people has altered the game, depriving Tehran of one of its most important cards.

Nevertheless, the most important concern for the regime in Tehran at present is Syria and Iraq. The collapse of the Syrian regime would represent a grave strategic loss for Tehran at every level, from Iraq to Israel — through Hezbollah — to the Gulf region and the Arab peninsula, up to the Iranian interior. This perhaps explains why the regime in Iran is trying to entice, not just its traditional friends in Moscow and Beijing, but also Western capitals, with trade-offs and bargains in mind, all in anticipation of further deterioration and the implications this may bring.

In fact, Iraq represents a key part of the bargain Iran is seeking. However, this will not be as readily achievable as it had been when American troops in Iraq were sitting ducks. U.S. troops are now no longer deployed in Iraqi cities as they had been in the past, instead concentrated in army bases in small numbers, compared to the time when American troops were “cleansing” Iraq (ultimately to the benefit of the regime in Tehran.

The Iraq war was waged by former President George W. Bush under mercurial pretexts that included eliminating Iraq’s WMDs, the War on Terror in response to the September 11 attacks, and removing the tyrannical President Saddam Hussein. But that war was a precious gift purposely given by the neocons to both Iran and Israel. It is for this reason that the leaders of the regime in Tehran felt that they were the de facto allies of Washington in fighting “Sunni terrorism” that engendered the September 11 attacks, especially as they had always sought to maintain a truce-like relationship with Israel, regardless of the extent of verbal escalation.

Some decision-makers in Iran are still under the influence of George W. Bush’s offering across the border, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, an offering whereby the most dangerous and powerful rivals of Iran’s mullahs were eliminated: Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. For this reason, the mullahs view the Arab Spring as the complement of a relationship of coinciding strategic interests between the United States and Iran, from the perspective of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

They believe that such convergence in their interests would continue in Syria as well, after the Syrian regime contains — or rather eradicates — the Syrian opposition and after everything returns to normal thereupon. In their view, there is hesitation and delay on the part of President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which means that this administration has not yet made up its mind regarding Syria and Iran. This is what some believe, that is. However, there is a different opinion in Iran that is proving to be terrifying for some, arrived at after it was concluded that there is a new strategic relationship being forged between NATO, which includes Turkey alongside the United States and Europe, and key Arab countries, most prominently certain countries in the GCC, and perhaps Egypt to a lesser extent — in view of its domestic preoccupations and regional quagmire. According to Hillary Clinton, this alliance is “the first of its kind”, as it in effect replaces the de facto alliance that prevailed under Bush between Washington and Tehran. This news is therefore disquieting for the leaders of the Iranian regime.

The Obama Administration is not keen on the so-called “War on Terror”, and subsequently, this war is no longer vital to U.S. strategy. But the administration is wary of adopting a rather solitary discourse, in the context of demanding Bashar Al-Assad to step down. This is because it would then have to take measures on the ground, and at present, it is unwilling or unprepared to do so, as long as it has not yet convinced this European-Arab-Turkish alliance to be on its side.

Resistance to any escalation against the Syrian regime at the Security Council also continues on the part of Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is while these countries were essential to the view held by Barack Obama and his administration when they sought international partnership in putting pressure on Iran or in terms of other issues of concern to major countries. This partnership, and with it the principle of “consensus” in the Security Council, has reached a difficult juncture with the Syrian issue. Both shall also have repercussions with regard to the Iranian issue, particularly Tehran’s nuclear program.

Barack Obama will not be able to appear as if meeting the desires of tyrants or yielding to the dictates of Moscow and Beijing. In truth, the Republicans are primed for any misstep or slip-up by Barack Obama that would allow them to accuse him of dealing with dictators, outlaws and terrorists. His emotions and his political background may drive him to wish for the situation in Syria not to get worse and force him to make tough decisions. But in truth, the side dictating American policy today, much more than either one of the two parties, is the Syrian opposition, as it proves itself on the ground, under the observation of human rights organizations and the relevant United Nations agencies.

The Republicans, and with them the intelligence and law enforcement community, also view Iran and Syria from the angle of the Lebanese Hezbollah. What concerns the Republicans and others is the possibility of a war erupting with Israel. In the event this happens, both Democrats and Republicans would rally together in solidarity with their Israeli ally in its war against Hezbollah, which the United States classifies as a “terrorist” organization. What worries the security and intelligence services as well is the close relationship among drug trafficking, money laundering and the funding of terrorism and assassinations… These services, according to a well informed source, are focusing their attention on Lebanon and have for a while been preparing dossiers on bank accounts, assets and money transfers linked to both Hezbollah and Iran. All eyes, and measures, are turned towards the banking sector in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Iranian funds, amounting to around 7 billion dollars, have reached Iraq, as well as Syria and Lebanon, as financial support the Syrian regime — in addition to the support it is receiving in terms of Iranian and Hezbollah cadres to help in the crackdown against the protesters. Nevertheless, there is also a great deal of preoccupation in the ranks of the regime in Iran and in Syria, as well as within Hezbollah, regarding the repercussions of the STL revealing the greater part of its indictment against four Hezbollah “supporters”, who planned and carried out the conspiracy to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and 22 of his companions. Those men — Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra — are placed at different levels within Hezbollah. Yet Badreddine’s position is considered among the highest ranking in Hezbollah’s military wing. He is also the relative of one of the party’s major leaders, Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated in Damascus following the Hariri assassination.

Some now expect a wave of assassinations, or liquidations, to ensue, in order to eliminate the ‘secret keepers’, and thus they expect a greater wave of violence very soon. There are also those who expect Hezbollah — which brought down Saad Hariri’s government while he was sitting in the Oval Office with Barack Obama, in favor of the current government headed by Najib Mikati — to move quickly to take control of security services in Lebanon in order to confront eventual security measures. However, the party, which is part of the government, may find great difficulty in preventing massive measures from being taken. In fact, the first victim in this regard may well be bank secrecy in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s options have become both limited and dangerous. Its final card, i.e. war against Israel, will come at a tremendous cost for itself and for Iran. Furthermore, the option of civil war is not in its interest at the end of the day. Both are suicidal options. Hezbollah realizes that the STL has cleared neither Syria nor Iran. Rather, whatever evidence it might have today, of the implication of the two regimes in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, it intends to withhold until the court hearings, when additional indictments are issued. Moreover, those concerned in Damascus and Tehran know that this is the beginning of the prosecution, and not the end of the line.

What the three players know is that each of their strategies has suffered damage and has ground to a halt, at least for the time being. Hezbollah’s plans have now suffered greater damage, after having faced many hurdles, and despite all of the efforts of the party and its allies in Tehran and Damascus. Here, a decision to carry out liquidations, or disown those who carried out political assassinations in Lebanon, may be taken, by for example accusing them of being CIA agents. A decision of unrestrained escalation may also come to force, by returning to car bombings in several capitals in the Arab World, Europe and perhaps even the United States. Finally, a decision to go to war may be the way forward instead.

Whatever decision is taken, the golden age of the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah trio has been radically eroded, and the countdown has begun to a new alternative inspired by the Arab Spring. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was the reward for the uprising of one million Lebanese in the Cedar Revolution, and local and international accountability of the tyrants of the Middle East shall be the reward for the youth uprising in the Arab Spring.

*Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat