Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On the Winds of War - Ahmadinejad’s Journey to Damascus

Ahmadinejad and Asad in Damascus. 19 July 2007. MEHR News

On 19 July, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Al Asad. Ahmadinejad had come to the Syrian capital 48 hours after Asad had taken the oath of office at the start of his second term as the country’s president. As customary, Ahmadinejad had brought a gift for the re-elected president. What the gift was has since become a source of speculation, denial and a call to arms.

The London-based Pan Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat, quoting an identified source close to Ahmadinejad, reported that in his meeting with Bashar, the Iranian president offered a grant of one billion dollars to Syria in return for Syria’s pledge not to start any peace talks with Israel (Asharq Al Awsat, 21 July).

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman denied that Ahmadinejad had pledged one billion dollars in aid to Syria for purchasing weapons from Russia and North Korea (IRNA, 22 July).

And the Israelis were quick to react. Israel’s minister of strategic threats Avigdor Liebeman urged prime minister Ehud Olmert and the chairman of the opposition Binyamin Netanyahu to form a national unity government in light of the strategic threat posed by the tightening ties between Syria and Iran (Haaretz, 21 July). Yitzhaq Ben Yisra'el, a senior Knesset member from the ruling Kadima party, also urged Olmert and Netanyahu to form a “national emergency government” to deal with Iran (Ynetnews, 21 July).

Immediately after his meeting with Bashar Asad, Ahmadinejad met with Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mishaal (IRNA, 19 July).

The speculations raised by Asharq Al Awsat, denials by Iran and a call to arms by influential Israelis, all in a span of a single weekend, show the tense atmosphere surrounding the alliance formed by Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah against Israel.

Iran’s strategy is seemingly simple: lead a coalition with Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah as members, drive the US out of the Middle East, and wipe Israel off the map. Syria’s buying into the strategy is a bit more perplexing. Bashar must feel abandoned by the Arabs and shunned by the US and the Europeans. Reliance on the Islamic Republic seems to be his only hope to regain the Golan. Hamas, now governing a land on the border of Israel, needs Iran for survival. Hizbollah, which was formed with the help of Iran’s revolutionary guards, needs Iran not only to confront Israel, but also to face an intractable domestic Lebanese front.

Iran’s strategy, however, seems to have big holes in it. To begin with, the Islamic Republic is facing one of the toughest years of its existence when it comes to matters of economy and public discontent. The world’s second biggest oil producer had to ration gasoline with a draconian measure of less than a gallon per car per day. In a public opinion poll conducted last June, 75% of the people felt they were not benefiting from the surging oil revenues (Please see 18 July entry in this blog: The Views of Iranians). One billion dollar grant to Syria will not go well at home, hence the quick denial by the government. Iran is also facing a financial crisis as a result of the growing sanctions against its banking and financial institutions. A promise of one billion dollar in cash to Syria is easier said than done.

Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah might not be all that powerful allies either. Syria, isolated in the Arab world, is not ready for a war with Israel and might actually fear an Israeli attack. The alliance with Iran could well be a defensive strategy for Damascus. Hamas has its hands full holding on to Gaza in the face of a world increasingly united against its rule. Hizbollah is not ruling Lebanon, as they expected only a year ago. The Lebanese Army is coming out of a major fight with Al Qaeda stronger in morale despite its casualties and the Sionora government is showing a renewed sense of purpose. It’s Nasrallah’s life that has become more complicated. The alliance of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah looks much stronger on paper.

Ahmadinejad’s journey to Damascus and the summit of the four leaders should be taken very seriously. This alliance, however weak internally, needs to create tension to justify its members’ hold on their people. But heightening tension in an already tense region can be a recipe for war. What Iran needs to fear most is that creating winds of war can produce its own nightmare: a pre-emptive attack on its military and nuclear facilities by the Israelis or the Americans or both.

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