05/24/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Western Powers Appease the Iranian Regime

The ambiguity of Western attitudes towards the Islamic Republic of Iran raises many questions about whether it is the goal of the United States, Britain, and France to enable Tehran to prevent the victory of the armed opposition in Syria, or to further involve Iran and its ally Hezbollah in the Syrian quagmire. This time, the West has been silent about the presidential elections in Iran, turning a blind eye to the growing repression there unlike in 2009, before the Iranian authorities managed to crush the protests and the reformist-led uprising. Furthermore, the West continues to engage in open-ended negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program, while rejecting to set timeframes or issue warnings vis-à-vis Iran's continued stalling and refusal to comply with international demands. Proceeding from this, it seems that Western stances over Iran's elections and nuclear program seek to appease the mullahs' regime in Tehran. Then concerning Tehran's regional role, which Iran views as a fundamental right, the West seems to be pursuing conflicting policies. The West appears at times a partner of Tehran's - as in enabling its role in Arab countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon - while at others, Washington, London, and Paris seem satisfied with the mutual carnage and attrition in the Syrian quagmire, between Shias and Sunnis, and happy to ward off terror from their cities. The recent public Western acknowledgement of a direct role of Iranian combatants in Syria effectively pushes Western powers into a corner. For one thing, the UN Security Council, in a resolution issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, bars Iran from exporting troops, military equipment, or military aid beyond its borders, and pledges to take measures against Iran in the event it is found in breach of those requirements. The Western powers have also recently warned against the continued military involvement of Lebanon's Hezbollah in Syria, with hints coming from Europe about plans to designate the Shia group's military wing as a terrorist organization. All these developments could lay the groundwork for further action at the UN Security Council, including a battle with Russia, another supplier of military aid to the Syrian regime, over Iran's involvement in Syria.

Whatever happens in the planned Geneva II conference, if it is indeed held, will determine the next move for Western powers. Yet one Gordian knot at that conference will be Iran as well. The statement issued by the foreign ministers of the Friends of Syria grouping at the end of their meeting in Amman this week, reaffirmed their commitment to stepping up support for the Syrian opposition, until a transitional government with full powers sees the light. But what kind of support could this mean? The answer to that question is the main issue of contention among the group, which includes the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, and Jordan. This week as well, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations issued a resolution that would help shield US President Barack Obama from criticism when and if he decides to provide real and tangible support for the Syrian opposition - at least to restore the balance of power on the ground and prevent the victory of regime forces backed by Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters, and superior Russian weaponry.

So will the US president decide to support the Syrian opposition with effective weapons, either directly or through Arab and European channels? Or will Obama continue to drag his feet - whether out of his naïve aversion to involvement in any quagmires, or based on his subtle ploy for both sides to mutually exhaust one another in that quagmire? The main issue here is the military balance of power. But it seems that the US policy pursued by Barack Obama so far is to prevent a decisive victory for either side in Syria: The armed opposition, which includes in its ranks the al-Nusra Front, even if in no bigger proportion than five or ten percent; or Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. Britain and France, as usual, make threats and then back down. They have both pledged more than once to go ahead and arm the Syrian opposition, after they failed to convince other members of the European Union to lift the arms embargo on Syria, only to backtrack on their pledges after that, more than once as well.

Perhaps among the reasons for Western attitudes that seem to favor a war of attrition in Syria, are the benefits of this war for US and European intelligence services. To be sure, the Syrian conflict has shed light on the breadth of Sunni extremism throughout the world because of the rallying call made by al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, and their ilk. As Sunni extremists answered the call for help, the intelligence community was able to expose their identities and attitudes, and intercept their communications. The most recent development to impact the military balance of power involves the clear determination of Iran and Hezbollah to triumph in Qusayr, a battle that is fateful at both the military and moral levels. Qusayr is a vital artery if the planned outcome of the battle is the survival of the regime or the partitioning of Syria, and also the backbone for any future Iranian presence in Syria.

The statement of the Friends of Syria, which stressed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have no future role in Syria, called on Iran and Hezbollah to withdraw their fighters and said their armed presence in the country was a threat to the stability of the region. That statement was made with a 'straight face,' calling on Assad's allies to pull out their fighters and affirming that Assad cannot have a role in Syria's future, while Tehran, Damascus, and Hezbollah are waging a fierce battle to ensure the survival of the regime with Assad in the helm. Moreover, the statement all but overlooked the 'ethnic cleansing' committed by Assad's forces in Baniyas, and also showed disregard for the warnings about the use of chemical weapons by deploying vapid and inconsequential language on the issue. In other words, one side is waging war to alter the military balance of power and keep it in its favor - and hence its triumphalist tone. And one side is vacillating between aversion to engagement on the ground, and deliberately undermining the balance of power, and hence its tone of supplication and appeal for intervention.

In truth, the boost to self-confidence made possible by the successful assault on Qusayr has allowed Hezbollah and Iran to advance their bid to extend the term of the Lebanese parliament for two years, and to form a political cabinet according to a configuration that is satisfactory to their camp. Their 'victory' in Qusayr has translated into successfully blocking the general election in Lebanon. While the Mumanaa axis - the so-called pro-resistance camp - plans and makes such moves, the other camp is in a slumber, and does nothing more than make promises or threats from time to time. Meanwhile, the issue of Iran's participation in Geneva II, which was agreed to by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, has become a major obstacle to holding the international meeting. Ahead of the international conference, Kerry went to Amman to meet with the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syria to unify the ranks of the opposition, and rally their support for political talks between the regime and the opposition. But Kerry appears as though he was marketing 'Russian goods,' especially if one is to recall that the previous US stance insisted on Bashar al-Assad stepping down. In addition, Kerry's seal of approval to the Amman statement, which mentioned that Bashar al-Assad would not have a future role in Syria, is but a natural reflection of the unnaturally conflicting attitudes of the United States.

Returning to Iran's participation in Geneva II which Russia insists upon, the debate is taking place at a time when the US administration has confirmed that Iranian troops are fighting alongside pro-Assad forces, and also amid growing US talk about the Syrian conflict having turned into a regional war with Iran now a direct party, both through its troops and its proxy Hezbollah. Yet the Western stance on the idea of Iran's participation in Geneva II remains vague and irresolute. For their part, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are opposed to granting Tehran a role on the table that would go on to discuss Syria's future, and believe that this would give legitimize Iran's regional role in Syria and beyond. Yet Lakhdar Brahimi, joint envoy of the UN and the Arab League, has always sought to give Iran a role in light of its influence and direct role in Syria. Brahimi believes this must be taken in to account; otherwise, proxy wars in Syria would only continue with no end in sight. Russia has proposed that both Saudi and Iran attend the conference. So far, Saudi has refused to take part following this formula, lest it be the one to endorse an Iranian role in an Arab country. Consequently, Iran's participation remains one of the many obstacles facing Geneva II, which is supposed to convene prior to the US-Russian summit in mid-June. By then, Iran would have been done with its presidential election. Incidentally, the Iranian authorities have preempted these elections by excluding the two men who had the best odds to win: Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, an ally of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime in Tehran also forestalled the elections by coming down hard on dissidents, perhaps to send out a message to all those concerned that meddling in Iran's electoral affairs was a red line, and that the regime would ensure that the protests that erupted in 2009 would not happen again. Iran's Guardian Council has practically aborted the elections by excluding those candidates. However, voices rose from within the council for the first time to criticize its decisions, which may signify the beginning of dissent. Furthermore, Mashaei pledged to expose corruption among his opponents. But will he be allowed to do that?

Most likely, the exclusion of candidates and the repression will affect voter turnout. Protest campaigns in Iran such as Vote4Zahra are meant to highlight the reactionary nature of the regime in Tehran and its misogyny. However, these remain protest campaigns and not electoral campaigns that are basically prohibited. The presidential elections in Iran carry little significance in their capacity as elections, so what matters is the disillusionment they will lead to after they are held, and how this would progress after that within Iran. Those who had hoped that something like the Arab Spring would erupt in Iran are disappointed. But in the end, disappointment is an essential part of the Iranian regime's strategy of repression, intimidation, and exclusion, which the rulers of the Islamic Republic practice only too well.

The Supreme Leader of the Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is alive and well, and continues to control all facets of power as he pleases. He has managed to exclude his significant opponents, and did not lose the rival project that is the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), which is seeking to safeguard its economic and military privileges and its powers that it accumulated over the years through Mashaei. It is worth mentioning that the task of internal repression is assigned to the Basij, while the job of protecting Iranian interests abroad is entrusted to the Pasdaran - i.e. the IRGC. The majority of Iranians have no qualms with what the IRGC is doing in Syria, or with what Khamenei wants through forward military deployments in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to get Iran closer to the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Soviet Union spent decades in pursuit of the same goal, and did not manage to do so except recently with its heir Russia, in Tartous. Iran reached the warm waters through what it sees as its prized possession, i.e. Lebanon, thanks to Hezbollah. Indeed, through Lebanon, Iran believes it has borders with the United States, given the special relationship between the latter and Israel. Furthermore, the support the IRGC receives in Syria, in the view of Iranian officials, is the result of the success of the Quds Brigade in the July War in Lebanon against Israel.

All these overlapping factors call for deeper reflection on the relationship between the West and Iran. For in parallel with claims about a quagmire in Syria and this being Iran and Hezbollah's Vietnam, there is talk about grand bargains being hatched behind closed doors, where the Western and Eastern powers would allow Iran to triumph in Syria against extremist Sunni factions, for which Iran would be rewarded in the grand regional scheme.