Friday, January 20, 2006

The Rhetorical Axis!

And so it happened just like we knew it would. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has just announced the formation of new alliance including Syria, Iran, rejectionist Palestinian groups, and Shia factions in Lebanon (in other words: Hezbollah).

The die seems to have finally been cast. The Shia Crescent has just been formalized and reconfigured into a living and breathing entity, with its own network of supports from among the secular nationalist movements and extremist Sunni groups, which simply have no other means of support at this stage.

Or has it?

The reality is Ahmadinejad is full of so much hot air that one should not jump to conclusions solely on the basis of his statements. He is no Khomeini. He is no Khamenei for that matter either. He does not seem to command enough loyalty among the ruling elite in Iran to be taking too seriously. His announcements and statements tend to be always provocative, but his provocation might be simply aimed at cutting the right deal for Iran, a deal which could come at the expense of both Syria and Hezbollah, not to mention the Palestinians, and regardless of what Ahmadinejad himself might think. After all, he is not his own man, and should he develop ideas along these lines, he will probably be removed from the scene, one way or another.

Indeed, the days of revolutionary zeal are over, despite what Ahmadinejad might think, and despite what his backers want us to think. There is a measure of cold calculation involved in the phenomenon represented by the rise of Ahmadinejad. Khamenei and his group of ultra-conservative yet pragmatic scholars and general are sending a message to the world: accept us and deal with us, or deal with the likes of Ahmadinejad, who do represent an important faction in the ruling elite, but one that is not as powerful as we are led to believe at times. The Ayatollah’s of Iran and their allies in the army have developed too many business interests to allow for the revolutionary zeal of someone like Ahmadinejad to ruin everything for them by provoking an un-winnable confrontation with the international community. Iran simply wants to end its isolation in a formal manner and wants to become a major regional player. Playing the card of radicalism is one way for them to negotiate their way into legitimacy.

Whether the world is willing to play along is something quite different. China and Russia might be willing to accept a powerful even nuclear Iran, but the United States, Germany, France and Great Britain seem completely unwilling to accept anything along these lines. Indeed, their entire regional policies will need to be reassessed with the introduction of such a new powerful player into the scene. They are unlikely to be willing to undertake such a reassessment.

And so, the ball is now squarely in Bush’s, Chirac’s Merkel’s and Blair’s court. Let’s see how they will respond to Iran’s hardball diplomacy.

If they took it too seriously, that is, if they believe that the above alliance is real, and/or if their intelligence paints a different picture of the Iranian scene than the one outlined above, a picture in which Ahmadinejad appears as the man in charge of charting Iran’s policy at this stage, then they have no choice but to come up with a joint strategy for confrontation with Iran, one that has to involve military action and prolonged presence in the region that will be increasingly unstable for the years to come.

Alternatively, they have to find ways for dealing with each country involved in this alleged alliance separately.

What does this mean? What does this alliance really represents?

A lot of hot air more likely. Bashar & Co. might be the only ones who are desperate enough to take this alliance seriously, and they probably will, which will only increase their problems with the international community. Moreover, Iran will not rush to the rescue of the Syrian regime should it collapse, even if this collapse came as a result of military action. But the Iranians will hope and will try to generate enough instability in the aftermath of such a collapse to keep international attention focused on Syria and Lebanon for a long enough time for them to produce their first nuke, a development which will change the rules of the game for them. Or so goes their basic assumption.

In all cases, if the US et al are unwilling to live with a nuclear Iran, then military strikes, if not a full-scale invasion, will be forthcoming sooner or later, even should Iran develop its first nukes in the next few months. In fact, such a development might act as a catalyst for military action rather than a preventive or a preemptive mechanism, as it is intended to be. Developing a nuke is one thing, mounting it on a missile and delivering it is quite another. Should Iran show any signs of having succeeded in meeting the first challenge, it is unlikely to survive long enough to meet the second challenge, even if it is only days away, that is, so long as the US et al are unwilling to live with a nuclear Iran.

So, let Ahmadinejad say what he wants, let Bashar believe what he wants, the net result of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Syria is a further increase in isolation for both regimes. The speech that Bashar is scheduled to give tomorrow will not alter this fact for his regime regardless of what he has to say. Indeed, the only startling thing that could come out of tomorrow’s speech is for it to contain, for once, some iota of real common sense and perception.

Meanwhile, promises of political and structural reforms are unlikely to be heeded or believed by the Syrian opposition, especially the signatories of the Damascus Declaration. And there is simply nothing that Bashar can say at this stage that can appease the international community, especially the United States and France. In fact, he is more likely to attempt to challenge them rather than appease them at this stage, being the brilliant guy that he is. (As I said, he will likely be the only one who will take Ahmadinejad’s declarations seriously).

Still, and as is usual in such cases, the speech will likely generate some sensation in certain quarters and it will surely receive all the popular support and approval that it is designed to get. The outpouring of emotion will be genuine – the people simply want to believe. So, the speech will help shore up Bashar’s image for a while. But he lack of real action, and the cold reaction of the international community vis-à-vis all this will serve to deflate, if not completely burst, the expectations' bubble within a few short weeks, if not days.

Then it will be back to square one: the investigation, the isolation, the constant anticipation, the frustration, the whimpering, whimpering, whimpering, whimpering, all the way to oblivion.