Realpolitik Casualties

The Iran Nuclear Deal is Really About Syria

A military ceremony to inaugurate the Free Syrian Army's Tawahid Brigade on November 3 in Aleppo(Salih Mahmud Leyla / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

MILAN--Maybe you should worry about the Iran deal, but not for the reasons Benjamin Netanyahu says you should. A this stage, it's really about Syria, not Israel.

The Israeli prime minister has famously described the interim agreement reached between world powers and the government of Tehran as a “historic mistake.” What he fears is that Iran may use the deal to keep pursuing a nuclear weapon, putting in danger the security of Israel and other neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia was not enthusiastic about the news that a deal had been reached, either.

But some say this deal might not be such bad news for the Jewish state. Since Israeli efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program have failed so far, part of the Israeli Defense establishment favors the idea of containment: “Their message has been that an agreement which slows down but does not dismantle Iran’s nuclear project is far preferable to the alternative—which is not, as Bibi would have it, more Iranian concessions, but rather Iran’s departure from the negotiations and no Iranian concessions,” wrote Larry Derfner for +972 Magazine.

Others have pointed out that, since the agreement is temporary and the long-term negotiations still at a preliminary stage, it could be too early to determine whether it will have any major consequences for the security of Israel.

In the short term, however, the so-called Iran agreement seems already to have had consequences—for Syria.

Peace talks for Syria, scheduled to take place this January in Geneva, were announced on Monday, only two days after the agreement with Iran was reached. One need not be an expert in Middle East politics to see the correlation between the two.

Along with Russia, Iran is one of the key supporters of the government of Bashar al-Assad. Several reports suggest that the negotiations with both Syria and Iran have been going on for months. Israeli intelligence had been aware for months of the ongoing negotiations between the U.Ss and the government of Teheran, as Haaretz reported. A the same time, the Obama administration has been known to pressure Syrian rebels to join the peace talks—something they were reluctant to do, apparently, because they feared the negotiations might be skewed in favor of Assad.

They have reason to be suspicious. First, the Syrian government seems quite confident about the Geneva negotiations. The Free Syrian Army—one of the largest armed rebel groups, and probably one of the most politically moderate as well—has not only announced it will not take part in the talks, but also that it has no intention of suspending the fighting during the negotiations. Finally the Western-backed Syrian National Council (which has dubious credibility as a representative of the Syrian people), has dropped the condition that Assad step down before any talks. Presumably it did so in response to U.S. pressure.

The SNC still maintains no final solution is attainable as long as Assad remains in power, but the Syrian president seems convinced he can continue to hold onto power. “The regime seems to believe that the west’s fear of chaos and of a resurgent al-Qaeda is stronger than its desire to see Mr. Assad go,” observes the Financial Times.

It is still too early to assert with confidence that the January talks will definitely be skewed in favor of Assad. Nor is it clear that the Assad regime is in a position to be confident of its staying power.

However, it seems that the Syrian government is more self-assured than the opposition when it comes to Geneva II. Most importantly, it seems the Assad camp can count on the firm support of Russia (and possibly Iran), while the opposition cannot count on the U.S.

Negotiations are rarely about being idealistic. This is particularly true of the peace talks for Syria. As some have already argued, the rebels and the West will have to talk to Assad whether they liked it or not.

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What we should worry about, however, is a situation in which the regime enters negotiations confident and heavily backed by Russia and Iran, while the opposition pressured rather than supported by the U.S. and its Western allies. Heavily skewed negotiations simply won't work.

The Obama administration has shown extreme reluctance to intervene in Syria, even after last summer's chemical attacks. It has also indicated a preference for pressuring the rebels to enter talks with the Assad regime, rather than showing full backing for the rebels. Taken together, these policies could indicate that the price for reaching a deal with Iran was leaving the FSA to fight its own battles, without U.S. support.

If this analysis turns out to be true, it would mean that the Syrian people are the true casualties of the Iran deal—and not Israel.