A negotiated end to Iranian nuclear ambitions? Now, that would be something to celebrate.

With respect to recent talks in Geneva, the decision to engage Iran in direct diplomacy without prior concessions should not be written off as capitulation: or, for that matter, a repudiation of the sanctions regime that arguably brought Tehran to the table in the first place. On the contrary, diplomacy is integral to foreign policy, and can prove effective when complemented by other tools in the foreign policy arsenal, including sanctions (read: Libya’s 2003 dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal and settling of claims stemming from Lockerbie, under not dissimilar circumstances). But as with Syria’s apparent willingness to forgo its chemical stockpiles in exchange for a recent stand down by US forces, the key question is whether Tehran’s shift on the nuclear front truly indicates a change in its regional calculus.

To find the answer to that question, policy makers should cast a glance 855 miles to the west of the Iranian capital towards Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. There, in the town of Arsal, as diplomats were finalizing their respective statements in Geneva, residents were struggling to absorb the latest wave of refugees from Syria’s internal crisis; 20,000 men, women and children since November 15 alone, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. On top of the 20,000 refugees already sheltering there, Arsal’s population has doubled since the spring, adding to Lebanon’s total of over 820,000 refugees from the two-and-a-half-year-old Syrian uprising – a refugee crisis described as the worst in a generation, with hundreds of thousands more struggling to survive in temporary camps across northern Jordan and southern Turkey.

The link between Arsal and Geneva (or Tehran, to be more precise) is not difficult to discern. Across the Lebanese border in the Qalamoun region of Syria from where the majority of Arsal’s recent refugees have fled, thousands more face what is feared will be a major humanitarian crisis as record snowfalls begin to blanket the region. Besieged by the Iranian- backed Lebanese Hezbollah, with the support of the Assad regime’s airpower, armor and artillery, Qalamoun’s remaining population, including significant numbers of internally displaced, have stark choices: hold on and hope for a regime reversal, or attempt flight into Lebanon. Those opting for the former might heed a November Time Magazine interview with a senior Hezbollah commander in Qalamoun. “We will cut everything from them. All sources of life will be cut: water, gas, electricity, heating.”

Escape into Lebanon, however, offers no assurance of safe haven for the vulnerable. In addition to inadequate shelter, and mounting disease and malnutrition, Arsal residents have faced cross-border shelling from Syrian forces and their allies. The spillover into Lebanon is now threatening to destabilize that country’s historically tenuous internal equilibrium with daily gun battles in the northern city of Tripoli between pro– and anti-Assad fighters, and a return of car bombing in the capital Beirut, including a deadly suicide blast at the Iranian Embassy in November.

That international intervention might stem the bloodshed in Qalamoun (or elsewhere, for that matter, in Syria) and the resulting displacement of the innocent is not likely in the cards. War fatigue in the West, combined with President Bashar Assad’s cooperation on the chemical weapons front and now Iranian willingness to discuss its nuclear program would seem weighed against such an event.

For those hoping that a resolution to the Syrian conflict would be part of some grand bargain, Tehran has made it clear that there will be no quid pro quo. Lest there be any ambiguity, the chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard chief, Mohammad Ali Jafari, stated earlier this month that “[w]e will do whatever is necessary to save the Syrian government,” including, if recent reports and video footage are verified, sending Revolutionary Guard forces into combat against the rebels.

If all goes according to plan now, the deal struck in Geneva last month promises Tehran the unfreezing of cash and related assets held abroad, as well as limited sanctions relief with the prospect of further easing, if talks progress. More important for the regime is the resulting improvement in its international standing; a benefit of inestimable value, particularly at home, where its legitimacy has sharply eroded due, in large part, to economic woes brought on by international isolation.

For Iran’s Middle East neighbors, though talks are still in the early stages, the promised payout from Geneva cannot be underestimated: a reduction in the regional proliferation of WMD. This is an end for which it is worth the diplomatic striving. But in the foothills of eastern Lebanon, where Arsal’s recent arrivals and those left behind bear witness to what otherwise appears an unreformed strategic ambition and unabated threat to regional security, albeit of a more conventional nature, progress in Geneva offers little consolation as the snow mounts and an end to their plight is no closer at hand.

The author is an international consultant and former senior advisor in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the US Department of State during the George W. Bush Administration.

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