10/05/2012 01:15 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

The Lifeline for Damascus and Tehran Is in Putin's Hands

New York - The collapse of the Iranian currency by one-third of its value over a week will leave an impact on Iran's nuclear and strategic ambitions - especially through the gateway of Syria. Russia may thus find itself in need of salvaging its Iranian ally for numerous reasons, among them, its need for Iran in its battle against the United States in its Muslim neighborhood, in the wake of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. There are three schools of thought on where things are going in the relationship between the United States and Iran, and what it entails in terms of indications and repercussions in the Middle East and for Russia.

The first states that President Barack Obama - who is likely to win a second term - will not bomb Iran no matter what and that the Islamic Republic of Iran will therefore obtain military nuclear capability, and perform a nuclear test within a year or two.

The second states that there is no escaping a military confrontation between the United States and Iran, which would start with an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites, followed by Iranian retaliation against economic locations in Arab countries in the Gulf region.

Finally, the third states that sanctions are leading Iran to collapse from within, and that the deterioration in the value of the currency and the economy at large will lead to reducing Tehran's ability to fund the regime in Damascus and Hezbollah in Lebanon. At the end of the day, it is purported, Russia will not be able to bankroll Iran and save it at the economic and nuclear levels.

Each of those schools of thought advances detailed and noteworthy scenarios. What they have in common is that the Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance with the regime in Damascus will not be able to maintain President Bashar Al-Assad in power, no matter how long it takes. In addition, prolonging the conflict in Syria will lead to a war of attrition, in a civil war that could lead to dividing Syria in a manner similar to what took place in the former Yugoslavia. Yet opinion is divided over this scenario, with some considering it possible, while others believe otherwise. Another common denominator is the assessment of both US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as both lacking in strategic visions and thinking into long-term interests.

Obama is, in the view of some, arrogant and stubborn, as well as an isolationist who lacks the courage to take the initiative and prefers to hide behind the American aversion to further interventions, instead of being a leader who knows where the interest of the United States lies in these times of transitions and new strategic equations. As for Putin, he is, again in the opinion of some, a man of posturing and excessive Russian nationalism, who values himself highly and considers himself to be the leader of a superpower - while Russia remains at the level below. He adopts revenge as a policy in the face of offense, and does not care for the price paid by innocent civilians in return.

Vladimir Putin exploited the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in Afghanistan, then rebelled against it in Libya and is now taking revenge against it over the dead bodies of innocent Syrians. Former US President George W. Bush did favors to both Russia and China in Afghanistan, in his war against terrorism and Islamic extremism. The aim was to eradicate Islamic extremism in Afghanistan before it spreads and reaches the five Muslim republics that surround Russia and come near to China, without Moscow and Beijing participating in covering the exorbitant cost. Barack Obama made the mistake of not satisfying Putin in a so-called "Grand Bargain", including by not granting Russia the port of Tartus. Yet what he is preparing to do in Afghanistan may well unintentionally represent a lethal blow for Vladimir Putin. The withdrawal of the United States within the framework of NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan may well represent the tipping point for Russia to slip into a war against Islamic extremism on its home soil and in its immediate neighborhood in the five Muslim republics. Vladimir Putin will find himself alone in such a confrontation, of which he has sowed the seeds himself in Syria, when he could have done the opposite if he had not made use of his veto for a third time, committing a major strategic blunder in the process.

Vladimir Putin may well be forced to wage his own war on terror - as George W. Bush had done in the past - and in fact probably believes himself to be doing just that in Syria. Bush summoned Al-Qaeda and groups like it to Iraq and waged the war there in order to keep terrorism away from American cities, as he said. Similarly, Putin contributed to the arrival of jihadists to Syria through the series of vetoes he made use of at the Security Council, in revenge for what NATO did in Libya. He thus encouraged the rise of extremism in Syria, while demonstrations had at the beginning been secular and only demanded reform in Syria. Bush entered into a war with his troops in Iraq. Putin is gathering a budget of around 70 billion dollars to confront the Muslim extremism arriving at his gates. Bush offered Iraq to Iran and played the Shiite-Sunni card based on the fact that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had been the work of Sunnis. Putin is allying himself with Iran on the same confessional basis, but also for reasons connected to his hatred of the United States on the one hand, and of the Arabs on the other. He respects Iran's arrogance and despises the weakness and fragmentation of the Arabs. He also finds a common denominator between himself and Tehran's mullahs in their absolute hatred of the United States and their need to confront it - yet only through proxy wars.

This kind of thinking reveals Vladimir Putin's ignorance of both the Arabs and Iran, and it will lead him to take Russia down a slippery slope to collapse, if he does not correct his course quickly before it is too late. What he is doing in Syria is investing against himself in the Muslim republics and in Chechnya. And if he is to correct his course, Syria is the place to start, as it would improve his relations with the leaderships of the Arab Maghreb and would lead him to partner with them, with the Gulf countries and with the United States to eradicate the Jihadist extremism that is spreading in the Arab Maghreb.

The interviews conducted by Al-Hayat last week with Libyan President Mohamed El-Magariaf and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, show the extent to which this trend has proliferated. There is no use for Russia to be alone in the forefront, and this is what will happen after the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, the stronghold of jihadists, as well as the base from which this new jihadist action will be launched against Russia as a result of the stances taken by Vladimir Putin and of his short-sightedness. He will come to regret it. So will China, if it continues to follow the direction into which Putin is taking it. Indeed, it in turn is exposed to this, particularly in Turkestan (Xinjiang), and will suffer after the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will become the center of Russia and China's entanglement with Jihadist extremism. China in turn will foster enmity with the Arabs because of Syria, and will not benefit from allying itself with the losers in Damascus or perhaps in Tehran.

Iran will not be among the losers according to the first scenario, adopted by the school that states that it will obtain nuclear capabilities after performing a military nuclear test some say will take place within a year or two. After the test, it will be too late. Then, an arms race will begin in the Gulf region, and there are indications that serious precautionary preparations are being made by some Gulf countries capable of obtaining nuclear capabilities. Then, it will be too late for the United States and for Israel, as they will not be able to rein in Iran or the nuclear arms race in the Arab region. Yet this will not mean salvation for the regime in Damascus, because Iran moving to the level of a nuclear power will make it, in the opinion of some, more cautious and careful not to get implicated in confrontations. Indeed, it will not make use of nuclear weapons even if it obtains them - it will behave like a nuclear power and will avoid proxy wars because it will have no need for them. Thus, according to those who are of this opinion, Tehran will adopt of policy of neglecting the regime in Syria as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, because it will stabilize and position itself at the nuclear level, and rein itself in at the regional level.

As for Israel, what is referred to as the "weakness" of its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will lead Iran to move forward at the nuclear level, according to an opinion held by some, especially as the US President will not let himself be dragged into bombing Iran on behalf of Israel. The second scenario is based on the assumption that Israel will direct a military strike against Iranian sites that would implicate the United States and force Obama to intervene militarily, if Iran were to respond to Israel at the military level. Yet there is information indicating that Iran will not take revenge on Israel directly or on American troops in the region, but will rather respond by striking against vital economic locations in Arab countries in the Gulf. Then too, some deem it likely that the United States will not be able to stand idly by and will be forced to strike against Iran, because directing military strikes against such vital economic locations would represent a blow to interests essential to the United States. Thus, according to this scenario, a war between the United States and Iran will take place either way.

It is unlikely for Iran's leadership to remain completely silent in the face of an Israeli strike, because this would represent a national offense and would be perceived as weakness at the domestic level. If it does remain silent, this could be because it would have come very close or even become ready to perform a nuclear test. Matters developing in the direction of a war between the United States and Iran will lead to a quicker collapse of the regime in Damascus. Hezbollah could get implicated by using the Lebanese scene as an arena for Iran's revenge on Israel, and thus in turn quickly collapse. Or it could disassociate itself from the issue and choose to reform its ways.

The third scenario is based on economic collapse within Iran, which would start with the sharp devaluation of its currency and would go through an economic crisis that would turn the Iranian interior against the leadership in Tehran. Such decay will lead to Tehran being forced to seriously lower the support it is extending to its ally in Damascus, which in turn has entered the cycle of economic erosion and decay. It will also lead to reducing Iranian funding of Hezbollah in Lebanon as well. Indeed, the three of them are subject to economic sanctions that will become increasingly stifling, even if they have tremendous reserves of weapons.

No matter how arrogantly they behave, these sanctions will weaken and besiege them. Their lifeline to salvation rests in Putin's hands alone, but he in turn is besieged, after having allowed himself to commit strategic mistakes he may well sorely regret.