In Teheran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word. But is the “No” of Iran’s spiritual leader really his last word when it comes to negotiating directly with the U.S. in the conflict over his country’s nuclear program?
Maybe not. His position must be seen in the context of Iran’s domestic politics - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is not in Khamenei’s good books, only has four more months in office. Taking such a huge step as starting to reconcile with the U.S. - something most Iranians want - is not going to take place while Ahmadinejad is in office.
In this conflict, now over a decade old, so many red lines have been crossed, so many opportunities wasted, so many deadlines frittered away, that there is no longer such a thing as “never.” Israeli leaders have been seeing the imminent advent of an Iranian bomb since the mid-1990s.
On the other hand, a few years ago Khamenei himself said that if it served Iran to cultivate relations with the U.S., he would be the first to do so. And if things get that far he wants the credit to go to him, not to reformers or populists. Now however, the Americans have tightened sanctions against Teheran so from his standpoint talk is useless. “I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary,” he says.
A solution to the conflict is possible despite Khamenei’s deep-rooted mistrust of the Americans. Settling the exasperating dispute about uranium and centrifuges would end economic sanctions - and then nothing more would stand in the way of broader reconciliation between the two countries. But here’s the rub - the spiritual leader fears nothing as much as he fears free exchange between people, free exchange of thought and goods. Every chance he gets, he warns of “cultural invasion.”
In Khamenei’s view, the spread of cultural values would lead to moral corruption, promiscuity and the destruction of social fabric. In that sense such values are far more dangerous to him than military attack. Washington pundits are credited with saying that mini-skirts would be more effective than bombs in Iran. This fear is what has led to the recent increase of pressure on Iranian journalists, artists and intellectuals, and the demonization of opposition leaders as “deviants.” For Khamenei, economic sanctions are the lesser of two evils.
The Great Satan still sells in Iran.
Even after decades of diplomatic estrangement and tightening economic sanctions, American products manage to find their way into the Iranian marketplace. The routes are varied: back channel exporters, licensing workarounds and straightforward trade for goods not covered by the U.S. embargoes over Iran’s nuclear program.
It offers lessons in the immense difficulties facing Western attempts to isolate Iran’s economy, which has deepening trade links with Asia where distributors serve as middlemen to funnel U.S. and other goods to Iranian merchants. But sanctions are also battering Iran’s currency and driving up costs for all imports, which could increase domestic pressures on Iran’s ruling system.
Although the number of Made-in-America items in Iran is dwarfed by the exports from Europe, China and neighboring Turkey, some of the best-known U.S. brands can be tracked down in Tehran and other large cities. It’s possible to check your emails on an iPhone, sip a Coke and hit the gym in a pair of Nikes.
Standard Chartered Plc (STAN) conducted $250 billion of transactions with Iranian entities over more than seven years in violation of federal money laundering laws, a New York regulator said in an order warning that its U.S. unit may be suspended from doing business in the state.
Standard Chartered earned hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for handling transactions on behalf of Iranian institutions that are subject to U.S. economic sanctions, the Department of Financial Services, run by Benjamin Lawsky, said today. The London-based bank, which generates almost 90 percent of its profit and revenue in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, was ordered by the agency to hire an independent, on-site monitor to oversee its operations in the state.
According to the order, when the head of the bank’s U.S. operations warned his superiors in London in 2006 that Standard Chartered’s actions could expose it to “catastrophic reputational damage,” he received a reply referring to the U.S. unit’s employees with an obscenity.
“Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?” a bank superior in London said, according to the New York regulator’s order.
Standard Chartered fell 6.2 percent to 1,470 pence in London trading, its biggest drop in almost 12 months. The shares had risen 11.2 percent this year before today, making it the third-best performing British bank stock after Lloyds Banking Group Plc and HSBC Holdings Plc.
With world powers playing a bit of brinksmanship over international action on Syria, Syria’s largest opposition coalition is presenting an ultimatum of its own: Either the UN Security Council passes a resolution with real consequences targeting President Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s violence, or the opposition will turn elsewhere for the means to defend itself and the Syrian people.
The implication of the opposition’s message is that the Security Council’s failure to finally act on a crisis that has left it paralyzed for over a year will lead to the full-blown civil war and wider regional conflict that world powers say they dread.
“What we are saying here is that if there is no possibility of counting on what is the legitimate mandate of the United Nations Security Council, then we have other options,” says Bassma Kodmani, head of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council (SNC) executive office. “If the door is closed in the face of the Syrian people, then we need to explore other scenarios.”
IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria
Dr. Kodmani is part of an SNC delegation meeting at the UN in New York this week with members of the Security Council in the run-up to an anticipated vote on a resolution to extend the mandate of the UN’s observer mission in Syria.
Western powers are demanding that any extension of the monitoring mission fall under a UN Charter provision - the charter’s Chapter 7 - that authorizes consequences for noncompliance that could run from economic sanctions to, eventually, the use of force. Russia, which has already vetoed two resolutions on Syria over the course of the crisis, says it wants only a reauthorization of the 300-member mission charged with monitoring the “cease-fire” that was supposed to have taken effect under international Syria envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria: Cutting Iran’s link to the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic prize worth the risk.
We’re not done with the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. Given that the current round of negotiations with the world’s major powers will not fundamentally change Iran’s nuclear program, the question of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is likely to return to center stage later this year. In addition to hard-headed diplomacy and economic sanctions, there is an important step the United States can take to change Israel’s calculations — helping the people of Syria in their battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war may seem unconnected, but in fact they are inextricably linked. Israel’s real fear — losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East — is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It’s the fact that Iran doesn’t even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria. Just reaching the nuclear threshold could embolden Iranian leaders to call on their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to attack Israel, knowing that their adversary would have to think hard before striking back.
That is where Syria comes in. It is the strategic relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Assad regime that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel’s security. Over the three decades of hostility between Iran and Israel, a direct military confrontation has never occurred — but through Hezbollah, which is sustained and trained by Iran via Syria, the Islamic Republic has proven able to threaten Israeli security interests.
The second round of talks between the six world powers - the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - and Iranian officials will take place today (Wednesday) in Baghdad.
The talks will focus on the issue of the future of Iran’s nuclear program and Western concern that Iran is utilizing the program to pursue nuclear military capabilities, despite Iranian claims that it is solely for peaceful, civilian purposes. The powers seek to convince Iran to act towards reducing suspicions of its development of nuclear weapon and decrease its uranium enrichment process, while Iran is seeking the alleviation of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamic republic.
The current round of discussions will begin just days after the announcement of the IAEA Chief that an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is imminent and the US approval of additional sanctions against Iran.
As the violence worsens in Syria, there are no great options for how to respond. The various Syrian factions and sectarian groups are far too intermingled for a Libya-like operation to work. Assad and his army are still too strong for a simple and small peacekeeping mission to succeed. And if we did invade, the specter of an Iraq-style imbroglio would loom, given Syria’s size and the multitude of nefarious actors there.
It’s important, though, to think through the available military options. (Though I do not favor any just yet, and we should only consider them in the event of strong Arab League and NATO support and participation.) These are three possible types:
A punitive naval or air operation to encourage a coup against Assad. These measures would reinforce existing economic sanctions. The two most viable tactics would be a naval blockade, to prevent Syria from exporting oil or importing a number of goods, and a limited air campaign to deprive the regime of assets that it values (like palaces). The hope would be that Assad’s cronies could be persuaded to depose him and then forge a power-sharing deal with the opposition, as a precondition for ending sanctions and ending the associated punitive military campaign.
A broader Balkans-like campaign to help depose Assad. In this option, air strikes would also target the heavy weapons that the Syrian army is using to shell cities; this could be combined with the creation of a no-fly zone for Syrian military helicopters and other aircraft over much or even all of the country, which could require up to a couple hundred aircraft operating in various bases on land and at sea in the region. This approach could also involve arming the Syrian opposition—though that would likely increase, rather than decrease, violence in the short term.
Creation of a safe zone for Syrian civilians. Safe zones are easier to declare than to enforce—and the Syrian army would surely contest any effort to establish one or more. But they might be accomplished using airpower and some modest number of outside ground troops. They could be partly modeled on the protection we afforded Kurds in Iraq throughout the 1990s, even while Saddam was still in power. Alas, this task would be harder here. There is no natural geographic or demographic logic to any particular possible safe zone in Syria. Populations are too interspersed, and the killing is happening largely in central cities, where it would likely be impractical to create such zones given the size and cohesion and capability of nearby Syrian army forces. Creating a safe zone in the northeast, near the Turkish border, would be more practical, but less helpful for the threatened populations, who predominantly reside in the western part of the country. This kind of mission would therefore have only a limited ability to protect innocents. But depending on how the situation unfolded, it could perhaps be combined with the above options to create the nucleus of a stronger resistance that could ultimately challenge Assad’s rule using the safe area as a staging base and sanctuary.
Ottawa had repeatedly warned the embassy in Damascus was on a day-to-day lifeline and withdrew staff who handled visas and passports for Canadian citizens in January. The last of the diplomats at the embassy have already left.
“The embassy’s closed, effective now,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said.
Earlier in the day, Canada expanded economic sanctions against Syria, hitting the country’s central bank and cabinet ministers.
The move is intended to widen the net of sanctions so that sanctions imposed by others, like those announced by the 27-nation European Union last week, cannot be evaded by moving money to Canada.
The new sanctions freeze the assets of Syria’s central bank and bar Canadians from doing business with them. The same freeze and ban were applied to seven new individuals, all ministers in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including his oil minister, transport minister and industry minister.
Canada first imposed sanctions last May to respond to Mr. al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on opposition protests, and has already widened them four times.
Mr. Baird announced the closure of the embassy in Syria at a joint news conference with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.
A Security Council meeting ended Thursday evening with no agreement on a draft resolution intended to pressure Syria to end its months-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.
“We had what I would characterize as sometimes difficult but ultimately useful discussions,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters. “We’re still working. This is not done.”
She said the Moroccans, who submitted the original draft, will come back with another version as soon as Thursday night or Friday morning that could be voted on. “In any case, there are some still complicated issues that our capitals will have to deliberate on and provide each of us with instructions on.”
“We’ll see what the reaction of the capitals will be,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said of the fate of the reworked wording of the resolution. “They’re assessing the situation. We’ll see what the outcome is going to be.”
Before the talks, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said Thursday that even a watered-down resolution would pressure the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, at least 70 people were killed across Syria on Wednesday, opposition activists said, with three more deaths reported Thursday.
The draft discussed Thursday had dropped demands from an Arab League plan for Syria to form a unity government and for President Bashar al-Assad to delegate power to his deputy.
How long can al-Assad remain in power? Syria violence and sanctions UN Security Council debates over Syria UN Security Council debates over Syria
U.N. diplomats said the changes reflected a big concession to Russia, which has been reluctant to sign on to any plan that could be seen as a mandate for regime change in Damascus, as occurred in Libya after it signed a resolution calling for a no-fly zone. Russia, which has said it is concerned about the prospect of a Syrian civil war and does not want al-Assad pushed from power, has made clear it will not accept an arms embargo or economic sanctions.
A call for other nations to follow the Arab League members in adopting measures such as sanctions against Syria had also been dropped from the latest version of the draft resolution.