U.S., Iran on learning curve as frenemies

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 3, 2015 1:46 PM (UTC+8)
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The relations between the United States and Iran are entering unchartered waters as the nuclear talks inch toward a deal by the end of next month. The two countries have been comfortably locked in a highly predictable adversarial relationship over the past 36 years. The transition to a new mode of relationship is not going to be easy, wherein they would pretend to be friendly with each other because it brought benefits, but still harbored resentment or rivalry and without having lost their profound mutual suspicion. A most challenging learning curve lies ahead, fraught with imponderables and hidden dangers.

Last week Iran was back on the Pentagon’s radar as a cantankerous adversary who needed to be put on the mat every now and then. Finally, Pentagon decided to taunt Iran with the U.S. Navy ships beginning to escort U.S.-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, underscoring that the Iranian navy is nothing more than a fly in the ointment. It is a provocative reaction in retaliation for Iran’s alleged provocation by boarding a Marshall-Islands flagged cargo ship last Tuesday.

But Iran has lost no time to snub the Pentagon in the same coin, taunting the Pentagon to deploy the U.S. warships in the Gulf of Aden and Bab el-Mandab Strait off Yemen to escort their commercial vessels and oil tankers in that region instead of wasting its time in the Persian Gulf. (The U.S. media had reported a few days ago that President Barack Obama had asked the a U.S. aircraft carrier to move to Yemen to interdict Iranian ships that might carry arms for the Houthi militia.)

Similarly, over Yemen, the U.S. is aligned with Saudi Arabia, which of course is locked in a grim struggle with Iran. On Saturday, Tehran switched to an assertive stance, speaking for the first time about Iran’s “security interests” in Yemen. “Others will not be allowed to put our shared security at risk with military adventures,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and point person on Yemen, Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

This warning could be seen against the backdrop of the latest reports regarding a “limited” deployment of Saudi ground troops in Aden, which Iran will view as a major escalation of the conflict in Yemen that wouldn’t have been possible without the tacit approval from the US, if not outright US logistic support.

But it is the third fault line — Syria — that may “lock in” the U.S. and Iran in a war of attrition with unpredictable consequences. The U.S.’ tacit backing for the victory of the al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Syria is taking a dangerous turn lately. (See my earlier blog The flare-up in Syria has multiple aims.)

The U.S. troops have begun arriving in Turkey to take a piece of the action in training the Syrian rebel groups to carry forward their current military campaign in northern Syria to its next step, which is to attack the heartland of the regime in the western regions.

Simultaneously, the Islamist fighters enjoying the covert support of Israel have mounted a new offensive and captured a crossing in Syria’s southwest frontier area near Israel on Thursday. The operation is led by Ahrar al-Sham, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra Front.

Thus, for the first time in the Syrian conflict, the Muslim regional states – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and Israel and the U.S. are forming a quasi-alliance to go for the jugular veins of the Syrian regime by openly displaying their audacity to back the al-Qaeda affiliated rebel groups with the maximum capacity to defeat the government forces. (Sputnik)

Plainly put, this project to boost the capability of the al-Qaeda affiliates is a calibrated move by the U.S.-backed unholy alliance of regional powers to make one more attempt to defeat Iran and the Hezbollah in Syria. Indeed, there is unmistakable jubilation in the U.S., Israeli and Arab media (here, here and here) that the Syrian regime is on the run.

Indeed, if the al-Qaeda succeeds in taking the battle to the Latakia region in the coming days, which is President Bashar al-Assad’s heartland, a monumental defat in Syria will be staring Iran on the face.

For sure, Tehran faces a grim choice. On the one hand, it needs to keep smiling at the U.S. negotiators and diligently draft the nuclear agreement by end-June that would lift sanctions. On the other hand, if it does not resist and defeat the multi-pronged moves by the U.S.-led quasi-alliance regionally, its stature as a regional power suffers a grievous setback and Washington will be soon negotiating from a position of strength, which is of course something that Tehran never allowed to happen in all these decades since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

What could be Iran’s next move on Syria? An Iranian commentary on Saturday disclosed that following the visit of the Syrian defence minister Gen. Fahd Jassin al-Freij to Iran last Tuesday, Tehran has decided to equip the Syrian government forces with “state-of-the-art weapons and equipment (that) will cripple the Takfiri terrorists in Syria.”

Simply put, Tehran will probably take a page out of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy file and choose to continue with the nuclear talks in a cordial atmosphere while at the same time keep on undercutting the old treacherous adversary in the scramble for regional influence — “talk-talk,” “fight-fight”.

In true Obama-style, the Tehran establishment will depute one set of dour diplomats to carry on the diplomatic negotiations with a plastic smile on their faces, while another set of battle-hardened veterans from the trenches who have faced the wrath of the Great Satan for over two generations will ensure that no matter what it takes, the U.S.-Israeli-Turkish-Saudi axis doesn’t pluck the fruit of victory.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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