Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Iran Enlists Allies in Nuke Program Battle

Tarek Al-Issawi, Yahoo News:
Iran is enlisting Syria and the militant Palestinian Hamas group — both also deeply at odds with the United States, Israel and some in western Europe — as allies in the battle over its disputed nuclear program. The move has prompted Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman to declare that "a dark cloud is looming above our region, and it is metastasizing as a result of the statements and actions by leaders of Iran, Syria and the newly elected government of the Palestinian Authority." READ MORE

Syria and Iran have historically close ties dating back to 1980, when Damascus sided with Iran against Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. But ties have become far cozier since hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected last summer.

Syria was the new leader's first destination after he took office, and President Bashar Assad returned the compliment, becoming the first head of state to travel to Iran after Ahmadinejad assumed power.

Iranian and Syrian officials spoke of forming a "united front" to counter external pressure. It was Assad's fourth trip to Iran since he took office in 2000, succeeding his father, Hafez Assad.

Iran also has a long history of close ties to Hamas. Despite Iranian denials, Tehran was believed to have funded the group for years.

After Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections and the United States and Western Europe cut funding because of the militant organization's vow to destroy Israel, Iran announced it was sending the beleaguered Hamas-led government $50 million.

It remains unclear whether the money reached the Palestinians because Arab bankers fear U.S. retribution if they forward the funds.

While Iran, Syria and Hamas share an ideology that rejects Israel, opposes the Middle East peace process and is hostile to the United States, analysts say the alliance is nothing more than a tactic to boost morale and would be of little use to Tehran should the Americans attack.

"Tactically, the other part of the equation (Syria and Hamas) is too weak at the moment. Iran will certainly try to use all the options it has, but the Syria-Hamas factor is not beneficial to Iran," said Tehran-based political analyst Mashallah Shamsolvaezin.

"Syria and Hamas have their own problems. Damascus is trying to deal with international pressure over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and Hamas is almost broke and does not have the ability to take any initiatives to help Iran," Shamsolvaezin said.

Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based political analyst, concurred, saying Syria has "moved down the list of countries on the U.S. radar."

Iranian political commentator Ahmad Bakhshayesh said both Syria and Hamas would want to avoid any unnecessary attention now. "They are busy with their own domestic and international issues and would want to avoid new problems," he said.

But other, more powerful Arab countries could take up the slack.

"If something on the ground happens, there will be solidarity with Iran across the Arab world, except perhaps the neighboring Arab Gulf states," he said.

Iran has taken comfort in the nuclear dispute from Moscow and Beijing, both veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council, who oppose sanctions to punish Tehran. The United States, Britain and France — the other veto-wielding members — favor tougher measures.

Washington wants a U.N. resolution demanding that Iran stop uranium enrichment or face sanctions and perhaps military enforcement.

Movement toward a vote on a resolution was put on hold earlier this month to give the European Union more time for diplomacy. But its initial offers of economic and political incentives to Iran, including providing it with a light-water reactor, have been rejected out of hand by Ahmadinejad.

"Do you think you are dealing with a 4-year-old child to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold from him?" the Iranian president said Wednesday.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, senior Iranian officials have been jetting across the Middle East, visiting Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Syria in an apparent bid to reassure its neighbors of Tehran's peaceful intentions and win support.

And Iran has shown extraordinary dexterity with the United States and its European allies, as it tries to buy time.

Both Bakhshayesh and Shamsolvaezin said Iran was expert in dragging out conflicts.

"Iran is like a marathon champion when it comes to international conflicts. It lures the enemy in and then systematically and gradually takes control. It has proved that in the past," Shamsolvaezin said.

Rashwan, the Cairo-based analyst, predicted Iran would continue playing a deft hand.

"The Iranians are veterans at playing a high-stakes game and then cooling off the situation. They have immense negotiating powers and the will to protect their interests at any cost," he said.