Analysis: Possible first fruits of a new era

Unimpressed by Obama's 'extended hand,' Iran and Syria continue to stonewall UN nuclear inspectors.

russian iran atom dudes 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
russian iran atom dudes 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
President Barack Obama, in his first international media interview following his election, told Al-Arabiya that "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." In addition to the new policy of seeking to reduce pressure on Iran, the US is currently engaged in what looks like an extended courtship of the Assad regime in Syria. Obama mentioned neither Syria nor Iran in his latest speech to Congress. But the speech coined a phrase which handily sums up the essence of the administration's apparent approach to the region: "In words and deeds," the President told Congress, "we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun." In words and deeds, the response of Iran and Syria to the Obama approach is also becoming apparent. Since the election of Obama, Iran has this month carried out two high-profile acts indicating that its drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability has - so far at least - failed to be swayed by the new era. At the beginning of the month, Teheran announced that it had successfully launched its first satellite into orbit. The launch was testimony to the advances made by Iran's long-range ballistic missile program. It was also testimony to the importance the Iranian regime attaches to acts of open defiance and demonstrations of strength. This week, Iran announced that it is to begin a test run of its Russian-built light water reactor at Bushehr. The plant, which began construction in 1998, is due to begin functioning in the first half of this year. Russia has resisted international calls to suspend involvement. The test run, which coincides with a visit to Teheran of the head of Russia's state atomic energy corporation, represents an additional message from the Iranians regarding their position on the relative importance of extended hands and clenched fists. Under the radar, there is concern at the increasing opacity of the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranians have chosen a unique interpretation of their obligations vis-à-vis the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and its investigations. More and more, Iran simply declines to provide information. The result is that there are now real fears that a secret uranium enrichment site in addition to the site at Natanz might have been constructed. Regarding the not-yet-operating heavy water plant at Arak - again, Iran is simply refusing to answer questions. Teheran's impunity derives from a reading of the current international atmosphere which is probably correct. The courting of Syria, meanwhile, is showing no signs of being knocked off track by the latest revelations from the IAEA regarding just what it was that the Israeli air force bombed at al-Kibar in September, 2007. A report from the agency issued last week dismissed Syrian attempts to claim that traces of uranium found at the site were residue left by Israeli munitions. Inspectors have complained that Syria is denying access to parts of the site, and has failed to provide requested documentation concerning the site's use. Syrian spokesmen have explained the reluctance to grant access as deriving from fears that Israel might try to use information provided to gain knowledge of Syrian "military installations." As if on cue, and in the latest evidence of the Syrian regime's feline sense of humor, a missile facility has now appeared at the site bombed in 2007. The facility will no doubt, in addition to defending Syria's skies from its enemies, serve an additional function as a reason why the site cannot be made open to inspectors from the IAEA. Despite all this, the charm offensive is continuing. In addition to three high profile congressional delegations to Damascus, a series of quieter gestures are signaling to the Syrians that the sanctions regime put in place by the previous administration may be discreetly wound down. The Treasury Department last week permitted $500,000 to be transferred to a Syrian charity. The Department of Commerce approved the supplying of spare parts to Syria's superannuated Boeing 747 aircraft, and so on. Thus far deeds. In terms of words - the picture does not differ greatly. The Syrians were reputedly angered by a suggestion from Congressman Benjamin Cardin during the visit of the first congressional delegation that Damascus might share some responsibility for its international isolation - because of its "partnership of terrorism." An editorial in the al-Watan newspaper described such remarks as "far from the Arab, international and American reality." The newspaper succinctly summarized Syria's position as follows: "the Syrians are looking forward to a change in American policy, not to a change in Syrian policy." Iranian spokesmen have struck a similar tone. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hassan Qashqavi responded to Obama's earlier declaration by contending that Iran had "never clenched its fists." Rather, it was the Bush administration which had shown its "clenched fist to Mid-East nations." The new era of engagement thus appears so far to be providing the Iranians with valuable leeway for the pursuit of their nuclear ambitions, and the Syrians with similar space to avoid being brought to account for their own apparently now discontinued program. In addition, the new era is giving the spokesmen of both dictatorships plenty of opportunity for engaging in the scolding and proclamations of moral superiority of which they are so fond. It is unlikely that this is what the new US president had in mind. It is therefore probable that the new era will be an unusually short one. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.