Negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program remain on hold, awaiting the outcome of Iran’s presidential election, which will take place on June 14th. But the related issue of Iran-Syria and Syria’s civil war threatens to boil over, expanding into Lebanon amidst claims by the French government that they have obtained “proof” that Syria used chemical weapons. Meanwhile the hoped-for peace negotiations initiated by the United States and Russia (“Geneva II”) may not happen at all, largely due to the disarray in the anti-Assad armed opposition. Now the $64 question is, What is the US strategy for the region? For the past year, the ruling views on both Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program have been those of Dickens’ Mr. Micawber: to await the future in the confidence “that something will turn up.” But what seems to be “turning up” are a string of false starts and disasters.
Towards Iran, over the last four years, the Obama administration has built its strategy around comprehensive economic sanctions (with several more rounds added this week). While sanctions have caused distress for ordinary Iranians, there has been no apparent weakening of the Iranian political elite’s determination to continue their nuclear program, and none of the candidates running for president have made the nuclear program/economic sanctions an issue. Though US intelligence reports and IAEA inspection reports are clear that Iran is not making and does not seem to want to make nuclear weapons, the US political and media elite has persuaded itself otherwise. There is no sign that, when nuclear negotiations are re-started after Iran’s presidential election, the Obama administration will significantly change its bargaining strategy that has so far proved useless. What then?
Once again, because developments in Syria are deeply connected with the possibilities of peace or war between the United States and Iran, I have included a substantial selection of good/useful articles and essays about Syria further down in this newsletter. During the past week the parameters of the Syrian civil war changed significantly. The events in Turkey raise the possibility of a less active role for that country in supporting the Opposition against the Assad government. The greater role of Hezbollah inside Syria, and the beginnings of what may be a civil-war-by-contagion inside Lebanon are also significant, not least because Hezbollah is viewed as a main enemy (and an extension of Iran) by Israel, and as the embodiment of pure evil by the United States. The failure of the Syrian opposition to establish any unity at its conference in Istanbul, and its (at the moment) rejection of the US invitation to attend a peace conference in June (“Geneva II”), means that what seemed to be the current US strategy towards Syria is going down in flames. The decision by the European Union to end the arms embargo against all parties in Syria, and the announcement by Russia that it will send advanced anti-aircraft missile batteries to the Syrian government, were also added to the tempest this week.
As I was about to send this newsletter out, the French government announced that it has “irrefutable proof” that the Assad government has used sarin gas against the armed opposition and civilian populations. How sound this claim is can’t be known just yet, but if the issue is brought to the UN Security Council there will be further pressure on President Obama to acknowledge that one of his “red lines” had been crossed, and that he must take military action. With US public opinion polls showing a 3-1 opposition to doing anything in Syria, there will be an important role for peace activists in speaking out and protesting against the pressures for war.
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