What does Iran nuclear deal mean for Syria?

2015-07-14 22:04
President Hassan Rouhani (AP)

President Hassan Rouhani (AP)

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Istanbul - While the deal between Iran and the six world powers aims to ensure Tehran does not obtain nuclear weapons, analysts warn that the agreement could lead to increased foreign interference in the Syrian civil war and spark further regional proxy battles with Saudi Arabia.

The main question is whether Iran's moderates will get to spend the windfall from sanctions relief to shore up the country's embattled economy, or if hardliners will muscle in and seek to advance Iran's interests abroad.

The deal comes as Syrian President Bashar Assad - Iran's key partner for more than three decades - is at his weakest. His army is overstretched, ceding ground to both the Islamic State group and rebel fighters.

"Iran has only one state ally in the world and that is Syria," says Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a former analyst for the Canadian government on the Middle East.

"Losing Syria would be devastating for Iran. So, Iran is willing to do a lot to keep Assad's regime standing," Juneau explains.

Already Iran's aid to its imperilled ally - in the form of cash, loans, oil and possibly weapons - is immense. Iran also reportedly organises foreign fighters, usually Shi'ites from Afghanistan to West Africa, to help the regime.

Saudi Arabia's response to the deal will help shape Tehran's steps in the months to come.

Increased support from the monarchy for Sunni rebels battling Assad could strengthen the hand of Iranian hardliners who want to use as many resources as possible to counter Saudi Arabia's influence.

Since King Salman took over the throne in January, following the death of his half-brother Abdullah, Saudi involvement in Syria is on the rise.

Rebel factions were on the back foot at the end of last year, but thanks to more aid and better co-ordination they have since chalked up serious wins.

"The Saudis are basically leading the overall strategy to try to coordinate operations among the different actors on the ground," Lina Khatib, director of Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, tells dpa.

The northern rebel alliance - known as Jaish al-Fatah and which includes the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's wing - is likely to continue to advance against al-Assad's troops.

"Whenever the rebels co-ordinate better, they are more effective against the regime, because the regime is not strong. Without Iranian support, the regime would be in even worse trouble," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute.

Iran may not love Assad personally, but it does not want Syria falling into the hands of hardline Sunni groups. And it needs the Syrian government to help safeguard its allies in Lebanon, most notably the armed Shiite Hezbollah movement.

Secondary priority

Syria, however, is only a secondary priority for Iran.

First, it needs to make sure its next door neighbour Iraq, which is led by a Shi'ite-government in Baghdad, is secure.

"Iran's forces are focused on the more imminent threat posed by the [Islamic State] in Iraq," says Amir Kamel, a lecturer at King's College London.

"Iran has been more active in Iraq than it has in Syria, in terms of aid, training, equipment, politically and other forms of support," Kamel said.

For Saudi Arabia, which may be happy to let Iran deal with the Islamic State threat for now, the main concern is Yemen. The kingdom's aerial war against Shi'ite Houthi rebels, now in its fourth month, has been marginally effective.

If the Saudis feel they are losing, they may boost their support for friendly Sunni factions - a move that in turn could inadvertently help al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the impoverished country. Iranian involvement may then actually increase.

However, these concerns pale in comparison to a far bigger nightmare scenario for Saudi Arabia: A nuclear deal leading, over time, to a more holistic warming of ties between Tehran and Washington after 35 years of hostilities.

"If the agreement proves to be a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran that greatly strengthens the hand of Tehran without forcing a change in Iranian policy in the region, this would alarm Saudi Arabia greatly," says Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The Saudis, who have long enjoyed a special relationship with the United States, may then be tempted to play a "spoiler role" in the region.

While President Barack Obama's administration has made it clear that the deal is only about the nuclear programme, and that it still views Iran with suspicion, officials in Washington will have to work to calm its jittery regional partners, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

While Israel reportedly already has nuclear weapons, though the government does not admit this, there is concern that Saudi Arabia could also decide to develop a nuclear programme due to concerns that the Vienna deal will fail to restrain Iran's nuclear drive.

"A parallel diplomatic track, focusing on the regional issues, is needed to guard against the benefits of any deal being outweighed by its costs," writes Jane Kinninmont at the Chatham House think-tank.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  isis  |  iran  |  israel  |  syria  |  saudi arabia  |  us  |  iraq  |  iran nuclear programme

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