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Iran Nervously Watching Syria-Israel Talks

Some Iranians are worried that news of Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations means that their staunchest ally is abandoning them. Not necessarily.

by
Meir Javedanfar

Bio

May 25, 2008 - 12:25 am

The news that Israel and Syria had agreed to indirect talks was initially greeted with resounding silence in the Iranian press.Finally, on May 22 – a full day after the talks made international headlines – Tabnak news, which is affiliated with the former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai, decided to break the story.

In a short piece describing the planned negotiations, it tried to calm Iranian concerns by saying that Syria had not agreed to break off relations with Iran as part of the price for peace with Israel, as called for by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Iran’s worries are very valid. The economic prospects of peace with Israel, in terms of increased investment from US and EU, would easily outstrip anything Tehran could offer Damascus.  This means that if Syria abandons Iran, Tehran would lose out on the massive amount of investment it has made in Syria since the early 1980s.

Strategically, should Syria leave Iran’s side, Iran will become even more isolated in the Middle East. This would be a serious matter. Many Iranians know that their activities in the region already viewed with even more suspicion by Sunni countries. Recent armed clashes initiated by Hezbollah – which is supported by Iran – in Lebanon, left many Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia seething with anger.

If Syria, a key player in Lebanon cuts its strategic cooperation with the Iranians, they could become even more isolated, thus making it more difficult for Tehran to carry out its policies in places such as Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon.  

This concern was repeated by other Iranian news agencies as the story finally hit the headlines nationally. In its main editorial, entitled “Syria still committed to the resistance”, the Tehran based Jahan News , described the talks as “nothing new”. It also tried to calm Iranian nerves by saying that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad had promised that he would not abandon the path of “resistance.”

What Assad was doing, the editorial said was trying to have the best of both worlds: return of the Golan Heights and full relations with Iran.

The Tehran based AsrIran News put an even more cheerful spin on the story. Quoting French experts and a report in AFP, it said that the talks between Israel and Syria had shown that US efforts to isolate Syria and Hezbollah had failed.

This assessment is quite accurate.

Everyone knows that Syria is a major backer of Hezbollah. When Israel – a major US ally – offers Syria full diplomatic relations and the Golan Heights as a condition for peace only a week after the Iran and Syria-backed Hezbollah managed to insert itself into the highest levels of political power in Lebanon; Hezbollah’s backers can be forgiven for thinking that in today’s Middle East, bold intervention in other country’s affairs could actually bring them more recognition from Jerusalem and Washington.

As a result, conservative elements in Iran, emboldened by Hezbollah’s victory and the opportunity being offered to Syria, may now try to make more trouble in the region, as means of forcing the US to negotiate with Tehran, and recognize its influence.

Such influence would give Tehran more bargaining chips, which it would be able to use to get the best results in any possible negotiations over its nuclear program.

Saturday’s declaration by Syria-based Teshreen newspaper that Damascus will not be breaking off relations with Iran in the event of peace  with Israel, should comfort Iranian nerves for now.

They should thank their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Their victory in Lebanon has provided Damascus with enough confidence and influence to attempt to play both Israel and Iran in order to get maximum results.

Israel should try to pursue peace with Damascus, irrespective of what Syria does with Tehran.

If Jerusalem preconditions peace and improving its strategic position with other countries on what they do with Tehran, the power and importance given to Iran can make its leaders even more influential than they could ever have hoped for. And that’s before they have gotten their hands on a nuclear bomb.

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