Iran War Weekly | May 20, 2013

From Frank Brodhead’s Iran War Weekly:

After almost a year of no progress in negotiations between “the West” and Iran about Iran’s nuclear program, last week’s meetings in Istanbul confirmed that there would be, indeed, no progress until at least after Iran’s presidential election, which will take place on June 14th. Whatever the outcome of the election, it is likely that the post-election resumption of talks (if any) will take place in an international landscape greatly altered by the fighting in Syria.

First, Iran’s election. As detailed in some good/useful readings linked below, there are a great many “unknowns” and “too soon to tells” regarding the election, including who will be allowed to run and how the several “camps” will (or will not) consolidate around a single candidate. The last-minute entry of former president Rafsanjani into the race has raised a storm of questions in the Iran-expert blogosphere about the stance and political strength (or weakness) of Supreme Leader Khamenei. And the entry of current president Ahmadinejad’s protégé now raises questions about whether he will survive Tuesday’s “cut” by the Guardian Council, and if so, what then, and if not, what will Ahmadinejad do? A dominant motif of analysts is the likelihood of “surprise.”

The short-term fate of Syria may be determined this week by a slew of meetings that will address the US-Russian proposal for an international peace conference, now dubbed “Geneva II.” A useful guide to this week’s meetings (Kerry in Jordan, the EU on resuming arms to the rebels, the Syrian National Council, etc.) can be read here.

There are a great many reasons to think that the conference will not take place at all, or that it will “fail” if it does. I think the important thing about the conference to watch is the apportioning of “blame” for whatever doesn’t work out to the satisfaction of the United States. First up may be the question of whether or not Iran will be invited to attend (strongly supported by Russia). A second question is whether the United States and the political and military groups that it supports inside and outside Syria will meet with President Assad, and/or whether they will make it a precondition of attending the conference that Assad will have no role in any political outcome. And in the background to all such questions will be the apparent success of the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies in regaining, between now and the conference, territory currently occupied by the armed opposition.

And then there are the wild cards. Israel has announced that it intends to carry out further air strikes against Syrian territory. According to the (London) Sunday Times, Assad has given orders that any further attacks will be responded to by missile strikes on Tel Aviv. A second wild card is “chemical weapons,” which was a focus of President Obama in his statements while visiting Turkey. As numerous analysts and Syrian military leaders have commented, it would be senseless for Syria to use chemical weapons while having control of the air and being able to bomb rebel positions. Thus it is clear that the only military purpose of using chemical weapons at this point would be to encourage US intervention. Who would have the motive for such a step? Hardly Syria.

It would seem that the main safeguard against a regional war beginning in Syria is the sheer insanity of such a prospect and the certainty of a disastrous outcome. Yet I would not be the first to think the situation analogous to July 1914 and World War I. And (a shout-out to historians reading this), a former student of Arno Mayer is inevitably drawn to the spectacle of the domestic crises in the United States, Britain, and France, and the possible attractiveness of a war (“home before Christmas”) as a way that political leaders might regain control of their domestic agendas and turbulent peoples.

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