Is Iran Changing Its Policies in Syria, Lebanon?

Article Summary
While eyes are on the Oct. 15-16 nuclear talks in Geneva, Iranian policies in Lebanon and Syria may already be showing a more moderate trend under President Hassan Rouhani.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has accurately described the current thaw in US-Iranian relations as an “opportunity,” frustrating Kerry's critics who see the recent Iranian efforts as simply a charm offensive aimed at fooling the West, and exasperating the chorus of Iranians who retain an almost genetic opposition to anything American.

Even those who oppose engagement as a trap aimed at enabling an Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons acknowledge Kerry's assessment, while belittling its importance. “Show us the money,” goes the cry, demanding irrefutable evidence that it is not just the music that has changed, but also the lyrics.

Kerry himself has adopted this practical and entirely understandable standard. “President [Barack] Obama has said, and I think other the members of the P5+1 agree,” said Kerry at his Oct. 6 meeting in Bali with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “it's not words that will make the difference.” Iran, too, can surely be counted among those who also expect practical, operational results — and sooner rather than later.

Words may not make the difference, but they make a difference. It matters that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “heroic flexibility.” Kerry has in fact led this effort on the American side. He pronounced himself “encouraged by the [Iranian] statements that were made in New York, and we're encouraged by the outreach.”

These statements are not occurring in a vacuum, but in a specific context. And the context is not limited to Iran. Nor is it limited to words. Indeed, the arena where the most practical operational and policy changes in the regional landscape are now occurring is not in Iran at all, but elsewhere — foremost in Lebanon and Syria. For critics and enthusiasts searching for signs of real progress in establishing a solid foundation for productive diplomacy on Iran, better today to look not simply and directly at Iran but in its regional reflections, often in faraway corners where in both word and deed, long-lived zero-sum thinking is being challenged by effective win-win solutions.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has introduced two dramatic and fast-paced positive changes on the ground. These changes go beyond words; they offer concrete evidence of the far-reaching changes sparked by progress on Syria. And they attest to Iran's interest in contributing in concrete ways to collective regional security. Those who have for years considered Hezbollah to be an Iranian cat's-paw should be prepared to acknowledge a helping Iranian hand in two fast-moving developments in Lebanon — one of which is linked to a long-standing demand for the expansion of Lebanon’s internal sovereignty, the other a product of the crisis in Syria and a telling barometer of the progress made possible by US-Russian cooperation on the issue.

On Aug. 15, more than 20 people were killed and 200 wounded in a car bomb attack in Hezbollah’s stronghold in Dahiyeh near the airport. A little more than one month later, on Sept. 23, contingents of the Lebanese armed forces began taking over entries and checkpoints formerly staffed by Hezbollah forces in Beirut's southern suburb. The Lebanese army is set to take over 44 positions in the suburb, according to the outline of Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel last week. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised interview with Al-Manar, "We congratulate and appreciate the decision to deploy Lebanese security forces in Dahiyeh. We hope the country's leaders will fulfill their lawful and national duties in other cities in Lebanon as well."

In recent days, there are unconfirmed reports that Hezbollah has begun withdrawing some of its forces deployed in Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s troops against Syrian rebels. Hezbollah, which has 8,000 to 10,000 fighters in Syria, is today reported to deploy only “a few thousand.” Assessments made in August that Hezbollah was one the verge of a major military deployment in Syria have had to be completely recast in the new environment forged by the resolution of the crisis precipitated by the regime's use of chemical weapons. The Assad regime understands that, so, too, evidently does Nasrallah. And it would be particularly hardheaded not to see an Iranian role in these confidence-building measures as well.

It is in Syria where the most encouraging indications of win-win opportunities are on offer, as Washington and Tehran move cautiously to end, or at least moderate, the  mutually destructive estrangement that has characterized relations for more than a generation. On the Syria front, as in Lebanon, there may be no direct connection to narrow Iranian-US relations and certainly not to the question of Iran's nuclear program. But Syria is the arena where the basic prerequisites for progress on the US-Iran agenda — recognizing core interests and fashioning mechanisms to safeguard them — are being forged in word and in deed. Some may minimize the value of mere words, forgetting the Prophet Muhammad’s injunction, “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.” But the extraordinary transformation in the rhetoric, particularly American rhetoric on Syria, cannot be denied, nor can it be divorced from real changes on the ground.

Less than a month ago at the United Nations, Obama bluntly declared that failure by the UN Security Council to enshrine the US-led demand for a “strong Security Council resolution,” i.e., one that enabled the use of force in Syria, “will show that the UN is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.” In Bali, Kerry sang an entirely different tune.

“We're very pleased with the pace of what has happened with respect to chemical weapons,” he said. “In a record amount of time, the UN Security Council has embraced a unique approach in a joint effort with the OCPW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]. That's never happened before. They agreed within a record period of time to follow the framework that Minister Lavrov and I negotiated in Geneva, and they put it into place both in The Hague. as well as at the UN. I think that was a terrific example of global cooperation, of multilateral efforts, to accomplish an accepted goal.”

Not only was a unanimous Security Council resolution passed on Syria after two years of stalemate, it was followed by a Security Council statement on humanitarian aid. Kerry noted, “The United States applauds the council for rapidly taking this up and for shining a light on this appalling situation.”

Not long ago, the secretary of state was warning of a “Munich moment,” — the apogee of an American effort to demonize Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The deal with Russia has changed all that. At the UN, Obama acknowledged that Assad had “taken the first step” by giving an account of its chemical weapons arsenal. In his Bali remarks, Kerry went further. Speaking of the successful efforts to begin the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal, he said, “We are appreciative for the Russian cooperation, as well as obviously for the Syrian compliance to this date. … I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to. Now, we hope that will continue. I'm not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road, but it's a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning.”

Even the most hardened observer cannot deny the change in Syria's policies. As Kerry himself acknowledged, what is happening with Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is unprecedented. 

Kerry understands that Syria's move on such a scale is not happening without reference to its strategic relationship with Iran. Not only in word, but also in deed is Tehran engaged in a positive dialogue with Washington. Syria may be the arena in which this aspect of the dialogue is occurring, but it is clear that neither the United States nor Iran want or expect that fruitful engagement will be limited to it.

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs and is the author of From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy Towards Egypt, 1945–1955.

Found in: syrian crisis, sergey lavrov, john kerry, iranian interests, iranian foreign policy, hezbollah, diplomacy, chemical weapons, barack obama

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs and is the author of From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy Towards Egypt, 1945–1955.


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