Scant attention was paid to the Obama administration’s disclosure early on Monday Jan. 14 of a decision by Washington and Tehran to “insulate” ongoing nuclear diplomacy from the tensions aroused by Iran’s regional policies.
This decision is of grave significance for Middle East stability. It whisked from Iran’s path not just Israeli and Saudi opposition to the nuclear deals struck by the six powers with Iran, but also to Tehran’s deep political and military meddling in the affairs – not just of Syria, but of Iraq and Lebanon as well.
Washington has given Tehran a free hand to continue to throw its weight around the region so long as it sticks to its nuclear accords with the United States.
The White House disclosure coincided with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s arrival in Beirut at the start of another Middle East tour, which also took him to Iraq, Jordan and Syria.
Tehran lost no time in using the momentum gained from the White House to show the region who is the boss.
Iran’s master plan for bringing Geneva-2 to a successful conclusion
According to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources, Zarif has also drawn up a master plan for presentation to Geneva 2 conference for resolving the Syrian conflict which opens in Montreux on Jan. 22, under the joint auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Iran has not been invited to this event – mainly because the Obama administration hopes that the omission of its rival will help mend US fences with the Saudi royal family.
(See a separate item in this issue: Prince Bandar Goes to Washington).
Nevertheless, when Kerry met Lavrov Saturday January 10, he gave an affirmative nod to the Russian suggestion for allowing Iran to put before the conference diplomatic proposals for resolving the Syrian impasse.
After all, Lavrov maintained, no one except Tehran is in a position to talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi Shiite militia chiefs fighting in Syria, and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah at one and the same time.
This prospect was already in the pipeline when Kerry visited Jerusalem in early January. So his comments to the media on Jan. 5 reflected a shift in tone, showing him to be maneuvering towards US acceptance of Iran’s presence at Geneva 2.
Lebanon as Iran’s starting point for Iran’s Mid East takeoff
Iran could play a constructive if limited role at the Geneva conference, Kerry remarked. “Now, could they contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them, conceivably, to weigh in? Can their mission that is already in Geneva… be there in order to help the process? It may be that there are ways that could happen,” he said.
Zarif is not overly concerned by Iran being shunted to the sidelines of Geneva. What matters to him is his role as solo performer with a plan. No other delegation will command the same leverage and resources, direct and indirect, for producing political solutions, however, partial, for the woes generated by the Syrian conflict and its deleterious fallout on other Middle East countries.
Making the Iranian master plan the centerpiece of Geneva 2 would earn Tehran high strategic rewards and kudos.
This consideration brought Zarif to Lebanon as the first stop in his current tour.
He arrived with a complicated plan for pushing Lebanon’s fractious political parties into establishing a national unity government, after two years of instability, and reaching a consensus on the candidate to succeed Gen. Michel Suleiman as president when he steps down in the summer.
Beirut would then be ready to combat Al Qaeda and its current drive to relocate the core of its jihad from Syria where it has suffered reverses to Lebanon.
Tehran demonstrates its prowess as government builder
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Zarif put his plan for action before a wide range of Lebanese party and political bloc leaders, after forcing Hizballah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to accept the notion of power-sharing with his rivals.
It calls for a coalition government of 24 ministers, eight of which would belong to Hizballah and its allies, eight portfolios allocated to the opposition Sunni-led bloc and the remaining eight in the gift of President Suleiman. The Iranian foreign minister agreed to consider extending his term which ends in summer as insurance for the coalition pact to hold up.
The Iranian foreign minister aimed to get this balanced administration in place in Beirut ahead of his meeting with Bashar Assad in Damascus Wednesday Jan. 15 in the interests of his five objectives:
1. To demonstrate Tehran’s prowess for engineering stable political solutions in Middle East trouble spots as a power broker in its own right without the aid of powers or fellow Middle East rulers.
2. To offer Geneva 2 with a readymade political template for resolving the woes of a country deeply cleft between Sunnis and Shiites and therefore applicable to Syria’s civil war – and not just Syria.
3. To isolate the two Al Qaeda branches – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra.
4. To downgrade Israel as an influential Middle East player.
Intensive Iranian effort to draw Saudi Arabia in
5. To draw Saudi Arabia into the Iranian initiative and convince its royal rulers to withdraw their support from the Islamists in the Syrian rebel camp, especially the newly-formed Islamic Front of a group of factions. That would hopefully lead the Saudis to switch their support around to Iran’s plans for Lebanon, a turning-point that could help the Iranian plan for Syria find acceptance atn the forthcoming conference.
Zarif also has his eye on Riyadh’s $3 billion guarantee of funding for the purchase of French weapons to arm the Lebanese army for battling Al Qaeda’s encroachments.
This would save Tehran from having to fork out the funds for this purpose.
These maneuvers were behind the revelation by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad Wednesday, shortly before Zarif arrived in Damascus, that Western intelligence agencies had paid visits to Damascus to discuss ways of combating radical Islamist groups.
Mekdad also reported that these Western security officials were at odds with the politicians pressing President Assad to step down.
This provide additional rationale for the message the Iranian foreign minister delivered wherever he landed in the Middle East – Beirut, Baghdad, Amman – that Tehran will not permit Assad’s overthrow by force.