Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Talking to Syria won't kill us.

So, I'm reading the NYT today and there are two articles that kind of make me think of Alice's looking glass. Bare with me here, this isn't some deep exploration of the nature of the universe or anything like that, it's just me wasting some space on a blog no one reads.

Now, Michael Slackman writes some interesting analysis today on what makes the Iranian government tick. There are a number of power centers within the regime, as we all know, and what I found really interesting was what he says about Ahmadinejad and his power base, which is the Revolutionary Guards (or the "cuds" as W. calls them). Ahmadinejad came to power without the support of the reformers, naturally, and he didn't exactly hit it off with the "hard-liners" in parliament, either. At the beginning, his selections for government ministers got him into a lot of trouble. His pick for the oil minister, in particular, as I recall, was rejected several times. There were rumblings back then that he might not even survive his entire term and since then his economic policies have left something to be desired, which has undermined his standing among the Iranian man on the street, even more than his ridiculous rhetoric.

Since Ahmadinejad hasn't been able to count on the man in the street, the reformers or the hard-liners -- the "mainstream" of Iranian society -- he's turned to the real hard-liners; the Revolutionary Guards.

Slacker writes: "When he took office, Mr. Ahmadinejad moved to create a new political class, relying mostly on former members of the Revolutionary Guards. . . Men who hewed very closely to the ideological views of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomanei and were determined to roll back the modest political reforms of President Khatami, which they saw as a dilution of the revolution." [Remember, we could have made a deal with Khatami in 2003 that would have prevented Ahmadinejad from ever coming to power, but Condi says she didn't get the memo.]

Medhi Chehade, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University in Beirut says: "They have a political and security role, huge financial resources and assets that are not listed in the country's budget, and manage the country's nuclear program. These elements combined helped these ultra-conservatives emerge as today's main power in Iran."

These are the folks Ahmadinejad courts to stay in power. True believers like himself, who, by the way, is not so concerned about the future because he's sure the Mahdi is on his way soon to separate the chosen from the infidel. Sound familiar? In any case, regardless of the timing of the Mahdi's return, no-bid contracts are a good way to keep your base happy. Slacker writes:

"The President has traveled around the country ordering up local construction jobs, then giving the work to the engineering branch of the Guards. Experts in Iran say the Guards could not handle all the work and would then subcontract the projects out, taking a percentage for simply passing the job off."

[Hmmm. . . what does that remind me of . . .]

In the current situation with the captured Brits, the pragmatists seem to have gotten the upper hand with the appearance of the adults in the form of Ari Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council, showing up to put his foot down. Yesterday, he said talks with the British could "change the ongoing conditions and put an end to this dispute," and so they did. Ahmadinejad had said on Monday he would hold a press conference on Tuesday, and then out of the blue he delayed it one day, until today. Obviously, he's only one voice on the Council and this time around he lost out.

Slackman writes that although the pragmatists are not quite as loony as the Ahmadinejad types, "The difference between the two sides may be a matter of style than substance, since both support Iran's drive for nuclear technology and harbor a deep distrust of Britain. The seesaw generally tips toward the side bringing the system its greatest benefits."

Presently, it appears, the benefits of pissing the world off aren't paying big dividends. Of course, one might also add that; although, the Iranian leadership is of one mind about distrusting Britain -- they sort of did have a hand in the overthrow of a democratically elected government -- and the nuclear power issue, that's not to say we couldn't do a deal with the elements of the government who aren't bent on bringing on the apocalypse. Even the current administration in Washington hasn't ruled out Iran having a peaceful nuclear program. The issue is them pulling an India or an Israel and surreptitiously building a bomb. Iran is headed toward an energy crisis and a case could be made for them needing nuclear power to off-set their impending oil shortage.

The main stumbling block to a peaceful and mutually beneficial solution to our stand off with Iran is that both sides have leaders who live in the Middle Ages. Ideology is trumping common sense. This is the point I've been trying to get around to with the Alice in the looking glass thing:

In the US these days we have a viable opposition for the first time, in a long time, and these diplomatic overtures the Democrats have been making to Syria -- along with the lame-duck status and low poll numbers of you-know-who -- are changing the dynamics of the stalemate in the Middle East. W. can say until he's blue in the face that Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus is "counter-productive" and is lending legitimacy to a state sponsor of terror, but you can be sure Iran is getting mighty nervous about all this to-ing and fro-ing. If drinking a couple hundred cups of tea with Bashar Assad could pry Syria away from Iran's sphere of influence -- say by pressuring Israel to hand over the Golan Heights, which they don't need anymore thanks to the invention of satellites -- then Iran would really be out in the cold.

Hassan Fattah in the NYT quotes Ziad Haider of Al Safir, a Lebanese daily, in an article about Pelosi's trip:

"There is a feeling now that change is going on in America politics -- even if it' being led by the opposition." Fattah writes: "Syrian officials are increasingly betting on improved relations with American Democrats, whom they expect lead the United States in coming years, Mr. Haider said: 'Pelosi's approach represents a more practical policy; the administration's policies over the last few years has been based on demands and ideology.'" [Boy, that's a real astute observation]

No one is arguing that Syria doesn't have to come clean on the Hariri assassination or that they should get Lebanon back. Sure, they probably could do more about the border and the influx of foreign fighters, but by the same token, so could the Saudis. A large portion of those fighters and the money that buys their weapons is coming straight from Saudi Arabia. [Come to mention it, what are the Iraqis doing about their own borders?]

Probably the influx across the Iraqi border the Syrians are most concerned about right now is the million or so Iraqi refugees they're putting up without any help from the rest of the world -- particularly the US, who is most responsible for the situation. A destabilized Syria isn't in anybody's interest, so let’s keep our eye on the ball here.

The main problem is Iran, not the Syrian regime. Sure they're autocratic -- so are the Egyptians, that's not such a problem for Condi anymore -- but they're not religious nuts like the Saudis and the Iranians. With them we can deal, and if we can make a deal resolving the Iranian issue, the Palestinian problem will be a lot closer to resolution, too. Four years of telling the Syrians they-know-what-to-do hasn't worked, so let's try a cup of tea instead. And let's lose our religious fanatics.

Case in point? AP reports:

"Syria played a key role in resolving the standoff over the 15 British sailors and marines held by
Iran two government officials said Wednesday. 'Syrian efforts and the Iranian willingness culminated with the release of the British sailors,' said Information Minister Mohsen Bilal."]


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