AN AXIS RESURGENT
By AMIR TAHERI
February 28, 2004
IN a reversal of its policy not to enter into military alliance with any foreign power, the Islamic Republic of Iran has just concluded a defense pact with Syria. Signed in Damascus yesterday, the pact commits Iran to Syria's defense against "the Zionist entity," which in the Iranian lexicon means Israel.
The idea of a pact was first raised by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Iraq last April. The Syrian leader paid three visits to Tehran, pressing the Iranian leadership to come to the help of his beleaguered regime.
Sources in Tehran say the Iranians were at first reluctant to commit to a course that could make war with Israel almost inevitable. All changed sometime last November when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian "Supreme Guide," decided that the only way to deal with the perceived threat from America was to raise the cost of any attempt by Washington to implement further "regime changes" in the Middle East.
According to our sources, Iran's decision to strengthen its commitment to Syria is one of several factors behind President Assad's recent decision to adopt a tougher stance against both the United States and Israel.
Iran's defense minister, Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani (who signed the pact with his Syrian counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Mustafa Tlas), told reporters in Damascus yesterday that its "arrangements" also extend to Lebanon, where Syria maintains an army of 30,000 and Iran supports the Hezbollah (Party of God).
From Damascus, Shamkhani went to Beirut, where he presided over a war council attended by the entire political and military leadership of the Hezbollah. Top of the agenda was closer coordination between Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which are supported by Iran.
The pact has three sections. One spells out the strategic partnership of the two nations on "military and intelligence" issues, including a framework for joint staff conversations, exchange of information, joint planning and exercises, and reciprocal access to segments of each nation's weapons systems.
The second section provides mechanisms whereby Iran and Syria will assist one another against aggression by a third party. The full text of the section has not been released, but Shamkhani and Tlas made it clear that "mutual defense" includes the commitment of troops and materiel to deal with any clear and present danger against either nation.
The third section is a memorandum on technical and scientific cooperation that commits Iran to build a national defense industry for Syria. The text also commits Iran to supply Syria with a wide range of weapons, including fighter-bombers and theater-range missiles, on a lend-lease basis. Iran has also agreed to train an undisclosed number of Syrian officers and military technicians, especially in the use of a wide range of missiles.
In a Thursday speech in Damascus, Shamkhani explained that Iran and Syria felt threatened by U.S. and Israeli "aggression."
"In the existing strategic configuration in our region, Syria represents Iran's first line of defense," Shamkhani said. "Iran, in turn, must be regarded as Syria's geo-strategic depth."
Iran already has a military presence in both Syria and Lebanon. The Iranian military mission in Damascus consists of over 500 officers and experts in weaponry and military intelligence. The Corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has a contingent of 1,200 men in Lebanon on missions including training, deployment and maintenance of certain categories of weapons, and military intelligence. Each year Iran also trains an unspecified number of Syrian officers and military technicians, plus hundreds of Hezbollah fighters and cadres.
The new pact is presented by the state-controlled media in Iran and Syria as a response to the close military ties between Israel and Turkey.
Iranian and Syrian analysts believe that Washington plans a new regional military alliance to include Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, seven regional countries are scheduled to sign an association accord with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) later this year. The leaders of the countries concerned (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan) have been invited to a NATO summit to be held in Istanbul in May.
As the only regional countries left out (along with Lebanon, which is de facto a Syrian dominion), Iran and Syria fear that their isolation could render them vulnerable to attack by either Israel or the United States.
The Irano-Syrian pact is scheduled to last for a period of five years but could be renewed with mutual consent.
To come into effect, the text must be approved by the Iranian and Syrian parliaments, which should happen early this summer. Syria's parliament, controlled by the ruling Arab Socialist Ba'ath (Renaissance) Party was never a problem. The new Iranian Majlis (parliament) is not expected to be a problem either since it will be controlled by groups loyal to the "Supreme Guide" and opposed to concessions to the United States.
The recent defeat of the so-called "reformist" camp in Iran is certain to concentrate control of foreign policy in the hands of Khamenei and his special foreign policy adviser, Ali-Akbar Velayati.
In a series of speeches and articles last year, Velayati urged the leadership to adopt "a position of strength" vis-à-vis the United States and Israel. His argument is that the Bush administration is committed to the overthrow of the Khomeinist regime and that the only way to counter its "conspiracies" is to raise the stakes to a point that would be unacceptable to American public opinion.
The Iran-Syria pact is only part of Velayati's grand vision. A more important part is Iran's decision to acquire a credible nuclear deterrent, probably within the next two to three years, thus raising the stakes even higher.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the new Iranian tough line has been encouraged by the reaction of both the United States and the European Union to the recent election in Iran, in which only handpicked pro-regime candidates were allowed to stand.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has expressed his "sadness" but insists that rapprochement with Tehran would continue regardless. The European Union has gone further by suggesting that the controversial election represented nothing but a dark patch in an otherwise serene sky. As for Washington, the announcement by CIA chief George Tenet that the Iranian regime is "secure" is seen by the hard-line Khomeinists as an admission of American despair.
Just three months ago, the Iranian and Syrian regimes had their backs to the wall. Now, however, they manifest a new self-confidence. And that could lead either to a serious dialogue with Washington or, more likely, a sharpening of the conflict with it, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and the occupied territories.
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