US, Iran inch toward a thaw over Syria

US, Iran inch toward a thaw over Syria

A country standing on the brink of a highly risky foreign military intervention amid an ongoing civil war that has lasted for more than two years. A “divine” touch, which was followed by an extremely tenuous deal for the handover of what triggered the idea of an international incursion in the first place.
All the while, dust settles over a battle-stricken country, which has avoided catastrophic Western “punishment” – at least for now.

Put simply, this is the brief synopsis of what Syria and its president, Bashar al-Assad, have gone through in the last couple of weeks, during which they first became the imminent target of a new U.S.-led military operation before being introduced to a negotiated solution to an unlikely war. As the vocal supporter of Damascus, Russia played a key role in crafting a tentative agreement for Syria amid the decline in support both in Washington and in the capitals of its allies on a military option.

Having said that, one must be a fool to think that the whole fuss was about the mighty U.S. showing its resolve that the use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished, or that the wise Kremlin would not abandon its regional ally or its sole Mediterranean base, or even that a hesitant Europe was seeking to shirk its responsibilities. To war or not to war was not something related to the Arab League or Turkey and the Ankara-backed Syrian opposition, since nobody bothered to listen to what they had to say.

The missing link was obvious from the first day. The war in Syria was not only about this poor country after all. Rather, it was about a more dangerous foe: Iran. The war option did even not aim at opening a hole in the “strategic” ties between Damascus and Tehran since the latter has recently adopted slightly different priorities regarding its relationship with the former, as well as with the West.

Something has been clearly changing in Tehran nowadays thanks to the new leader in charge, who is said to be “moderate” compared to his “conservative” rivals. Taking small but confident steps apparently backed by Iran’s final decision-maker, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, has engaged in an endeavor that he hopes will create a bit of sympathy for his regime.

He befriended the president of the “Great Satan” United States as a pen pal before freeing a group of dissidents, including a human rights lawyer mentioned in Barack Obama’s speech to Iranians for their New Year. He even sent a Rosh Hashanah message, which is still in question due to the unverified nature of the tweet, to all Jews. And more importantly, he has been voicing his desire to hammer out a deal with the West on Iran’s controversial nuclear drive at nearly every opportunity to both friend and foe alike.

The exchange of letters was triggered by Obama, who sent a congratulatory message to the new Iranian leader, who caught him off-guard with a response discussing many “sensitive” issues. Then it was the U.S. president’s turn, which offered a typical “carrot-and-stick” approach to a nation placing great emphasis on its pride. Accepting the olive branch extended by Tehran, Obama professed his readiness for talks while noting the continued threat posed by a possibly nuclear-armed Iran.

The letter exchange is not the first between the two nations, as Rouhani’s hard-liner predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sent a never-answered missive to Obama’s forerunner, George W. Bush, in 2006, while Obama was left in the same spot after he tried to reach Khamanei in 2009. These attempts ended up in vain. But nowadays, a highly excited debate is mounting about an unlikely scenario over a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani on the sidelines of next week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The prospects that the pen-pal diplomacy will occasion a surprising Obama-Rouhani meeting appear dim but not entirely impossible, while Syria’s on-again-off-again war was a rehearsal staged by Washington for Tehran in the event the negotiation option hits a dead end. By shelving the military option on Syria no matter what the motivation was, the U.S. did not care much about giving Syria a diplomatic chance, but it did extend one to the Islamic regime in Tehran, which is not as enthusiastic as it used to be about its Syrian ally.

Now both sides are awaiting deeds, rather than words, with a lingering worry from an important U.S. ally, Israel, whose prime minister will convey his concerns about Iran to the U.S. president during the U.N. summit. 

Believed to be reluctant though acquiescent on the chemical handover deal in the Syrian crisis, Israel should be fully aware that it can no longer keep the status quo in a changing Middle East – a fact that old foes Iran and the U.S. realized long ago.