The Middle Eastern Bazaar
Russia's Putin calculates his every move, and only goes to war to win. Considering the might of the West balanced against his own weakness, he apparently saw that the smart thing, should the U.S. decide to attack Syria, would be to stand on the sidelines and let Assad, his ally, tough it out alone. Concerned, even momentarily, that the U.S. might actually carry out its threat and attack the Syrian regime as it promised when the use of chemical weapons was called a "red line," Putin was quick to save the U.S. from itself. While Obama yelled "hold me back," however, in reality he did nothing and was planning to do nothing: the U.S. looked afraid.
Despite Syria having begun to reveal the locations of its chemical weapons storehouses, Putin is still squirming. He has no way of being certain that all the locations will be revealed – nor does anyone else. He refuses to let the chemicals enter Russia for destruction. No one knows where they will be destroyed or who will accept responsibility.
Now, while Putin is demanding that Israel also destroy the weapons of mass destruction he pretends it possesses, he also fancifully claims that Syria has chemical weapons "only" as a strategic balance to the "Israeli threat." Putin has said that, given Israel's technological superiority, it has nothing to fear from Syria -- another manipulative lie, this time for the ears of the Arab and Muslim world, which, as usual, hears only what it wants to. Putin knows full well that if Israel so desired, it could attack and defeat Syria or any other Arab country without once taking recourse to non-conventional weapons, especially now that these countries have been weakened by the Arab Spring.
Putin, having negotiated with the U.S. and discovered how easily it could be swayed -- is now, like a rug merchant in an Arab bazaar, trying to renegotiate the original arrangement to extort more. Having identified America's weaknesses, Putin is now doing his best to exploit it to the maximum, making the U.S. the biggest loser: Given its current situation in the UN and Congress, even if the U.S. wanted to attack Syria, it could not carry out its threat: The U.S now cannot attack without support from the UN Security Council, and, possibly to its relief, it is not going to get it.
The Arab and Muslim world is hard, implacable and unrelenting: here, in the Middle East, might is measured in terms of results on the ground, not in rhetoric. Since the Kerry-Lavrov agreement was reached, the status of the United States has plummeted and burned, despite the American campaign to market Obama as the super-strategist who achieved a diplomatic success while carrying a big stick. The truth is that the U.S. made empty threats that were never carried out. Worse, everyone knows he could not have carried them out: both domestically and abroad, he looks weak.
In the Arab and Muslim world, the agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons was represented as an American failure, both moral and operational; and as a strategic Syrian surrender to Israel. The worst aspect of the agreement, however, was that it gave the Syrian regime a green light to continue using conventional weapons to kill Syrian civilians. Putin came away from the agreement looking like a great statesman: mature, responsible and trustworthy. The various factions of the Syrian opposition, who have a vested interest, were not even invited to the deliberations. A number of days after the agreement was announced, they announced their refusal to accept it. As the various factions are also at war with each other, and shoot each other whenever the opportunity presents itself, there is really no alternative to Assad. Thus the American-Russian agreement will perpetuate the chaos and bloodshed for years to come. The agreement strengthens only Iran, which floods Syria with arms and logistical aid, even as it sedates the American administration with unscrupulous diplomatic rhetoric.
The Iranian Spin
Those parts of the West that have apparently succumbed to America's misguided interpretation of events are now celebrating "victory." Iranian president Rouhani arrived on America's shores and delivered at the UN a peace-dripping speech, bought and lapped up by the Americans, who seem to think Iran's "reversal" was the result of Obama's brilliant statesmanship. Rouhani finally recognized the existence of the Holocaust of the Jews and called for global cooperation, and there was even a rumor, since disproven, that in Tehran supreme leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa banning the development and use of nuclear weapons. Surely the millennium is at hand, but what if the lamb turns out to be a nuclear wolf in sheep's clothing? Now, after the American fiasco in Syria, the Iranians are certain that the U.S. will never strike them; that its only weapons are words on a teleprompter.
Having fully understood the U.S. mindset, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei set forth his plan of "heroic flexibility," a masterpiece of words, marketing a whole series of concepts without changing one single aspect of Iran's nuclear program. Only few in the Western world know that the Shi'ite operative principle at work is taqiyya: that to advance his goal, a Muslim can lie to the enemy, the infidel, the non-Muslim, with total impunity and religious sanction. Now that the U.S., in the eyes of the Middle East, has revealed itself as nothing more than a paper teleprompter, the Iranians have fallen over themselves uttering words such as "Lasting peace, No to war, Stability, Dialogue" -- all the tranquilizing words that can chloroform the West into a false sense of security, while deep in the mountains the centrifuges keep spinning, and Iran keeps on completing its bomb.
Even as the words came dripping off Rouhani's tongue, in Iran's backyards parades were held, featuring scores of long-range missiles capable of reaching Europe, the Persian Gulf, Israel, and American bases in the Middle East. Rouhani, who has attended several such parades, claims the weapons are just for self defense and that Iran has never started a war or initiated military confrontations against any country. Oh really? While Rouhani was devoutly dripping peace, Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of Iran's National Security Council, announced that as a result of Iran's "flexibility," American-Iranian relations would improve and break the back of the "reactionary" [pro-Western] Arab regimes in the Middle East and the "Zionist regime." This is the ayatollahs' real approach to peace.
The world's short memory may not recall that Iran fought a bloody, determined war for eight years against Iraq, and, thanks to the recent American withdrawal, has almost completely taken over the place. The missiles in Rouhani's peace parade bore the inscription "Death to Israel." At any given moment, Iranian fighters can be found slaughtering Syrian civilians while Iran provides training, arms and massive amounts of money to Hezbollah; and Iranian intelligence and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards maintain terrorist and espionage networks around the world, including South America.
The Americans, garlanded with olive branches, sit in the stands and watch as the Iranians land. The Iranians' visit means only that they have found the Achilles heel in the Western sanctions that threaten their economy. By showering the administration with compliments and marketing "ideological flexibility," the Iranians want to soften a superpower that dares not attack but takes refuge in words; cause the economic siege of Iran to crumble, and -- above all -- preserve their nuclear program.
On the eve of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan of Turkey was called "The Sick Man of the Bosphorus." Unfortunately, along the Potomac, there seem to be sick men as well, who mistakenly think the Iranians, after having spent so much on their nuclear bomb project -- and after suffering international economic sanctions, cyber attacks, and the loss of scientists under suspicious circumstances -- will actually give it up, rather than envisioning the Shi'ite apocalypse; the return of the Mahdi; control of Arab oil; occupying the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf; taking over the Middle East and after it, possibly world domination. The sick men of the Potomac seem mistakenly to think that the Iranians, captivated by Obama and possibly motivated by the Syrian fiasco, will suddenly decide they do not want a nuclear bomb or world domination, after all.
There are, along the Potomac, people who actually think that one bearded ayatollah at the United Nations means the Iranians have waived these desires. They ignore the worlds of the Ayatollah Khamenei, who defined statesmanship as fraud and deceit hidden in smiles, and then sent Rouhani off to negotiate with the West.
America is likely to get so caught up in words that it believes the legend it has created for itself.
The sanctions against Iran must be continued until there is proof that both its arsenal and nuclear potential have been destroyed. If the sanctions slacken or end, no leader will be able to renew the momentum.
There are people along the Potomac who wishfully think that the achievements of the negotiations in Syria increased their stature and deterrent capabilities; unfortunately, the opposite is true. More than one country has begun disregarding the United States; and many more, because of America's perceived weakness, are fearful. The Iranians, on the other hand, are laughing out loud.
Ali Salim is a scholar based in the Middle East