The opinion-piece that appeared this week in the Washington Post authored by Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was pointedly addressed to the western powers. The thought processes are complex and yet rather direct — a mix of warnings and overtures.
The timing of the WaPo piece merits attention: Kofi Annan’s mission has been wound up and Lakhdar Brahimi is stepping out of the woodwork. Brahimi is the West’s preferred specialist in conflicts involving the Islamist forces — Lebanon, Afghanistan readily come to mind. He has a consistent track record of creating the illusion of negotiations where none exists, while the real contestation continues undisturbed on the battle field. Kofi is too independent, while Brahimi is a time-server. The West badly wants Brahimi at the moment.
Second, the Syrian strife is switching gear. The civil war is just about commencing in right earnest. The supply of stinger missiles by Turkey to the Syrian rebels is meant to be a game changer. Against this backdrop, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s weekend visit to Istanbul is highly symbolic, too. It was meant to shore up Turkish leadership’s sagging morale. Having said that, Tehran sizes that there could also be soul-searching going on in the West — including in Washington — as to what lies ahead. By now, Tehran is used to Clinton’s rhetoric as the cloud cover for angst.
Third, Russia and China have receded to the background and are catching up with their routine life. Thus, the peace arena is empty. The floodlights are on but the stage is empty. And Iran walks in with an overture that is tantalizing in its lethal attraction.
It is difficult to be plainly dismissive about the Iranian offer, while it is also an intriguing offer to approach the door that could possibly open into the rose-garden. Of course, it is an offer that doesn’t suit the United States — and probably, Salehi knows it too, but there is no harm still trying.
Salehi warns that Iran won’t allow a cakewalk over Syria for the US and Turkey. The civil war will be nasty, bloody and protracted and it might even make the 15-year conflict in Lebanon seem a picnic. (By the way, out of the debris in Lebanon rose the Hezbullah.) Obviously, the stakes are high for Iran beacuse it lives in its region and Iran will safeguard its core interests no matter what it takes. But can the West or Turkey afford a protracted conflict in Lebanon?
Salehi underscores that the use of islamism as instrument of policy won’t work, either. Because, Iran is a natural ally of these forces of history, whereas the US and Turkey are not. That is to say, in the longer run, Iran only can win in Syria (or Egypt) whether there is a regime change or not. Besides, Afghanistan also testifies to the blowback that is inevitable if the Christian world tries to manipulate the Islamist forces.
However, Iran is willing to cooperate with the West since its interest lies primarily in regional stability and a level playing field. Therefore, it is willing to play the same role it played in assisting the US invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime and in showing such extraordinary self-restraint in Iraq (where it could have made things much more bloodier for the Americans if it wanted.)
The big issue is what is the nature of the ‘cooperation’ Tehran has in mind. Salehi makes it clear that Iran finds it unacceptable that Bashar should overnight step down. There has to be some clarity as to what happens in the downstream before Bashar steps down. Besides, Bashar is also part of the Syrian nation and has his rights too.
Therefore, Salehi taunts the West with a proposition: The international community should compel Bashar to stand for an election to the post of president in his country in a free and fair election that is held under international supervision. After all, it is for the Syrian nation to reject him.
Now, would Salehi’s proposal find acceptance in Washington or Ankara (Istanbul), Riyadh or Doha? The answer is a resounding ‘No’. The spectre that is haunting the West is that in a free and fair election, Syrians may well opt for Bashar as the anchor sheet of stability for their country. Surely, the TINA factor comes into play — ‘There Is No Alternative’ to Bashar if the fragile multicultural society that Syria is to hold together.
Besides, a free and fair election in Syria (on top of the one that took place in Egypt with such an awkward outcome) will be anathema to the Gulf Arab sheikhs. It is a dangerous idea that a head of state should be an elected figure. If the pernicious idea works in Syria, Saudi people might well wonder why they too can’t have such a prerogative in the second decade of the 21st century. Quite obviously, the US also will not want to let out the genie. Salehi has played a good hand. The WaPo opinion piece is here.
– August 12, 2012