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