Middle East

All About the Benjamins

Bashar al-Assad has outlived so many predictions of his imminent demise at this point that it would seem unwise to bet against him. Nonetheless, a series of military and diplomatic setbacks combined with a wave of defections in recent weeks have raised expectations that the Syrian president may finally be on his last legs. While Assad will likely exit the scene eventually, observers may be looking at the wrong signals when assessing his regime's vulnerability.[[SHARE]]

In a Dec. 20 article last year for Foreign Policy, we wrote of Assad: If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. ... Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion." We calculated at the time that Assad could count on 3,600 elite supporters. Should they stop working to neutralize the rebellion, Assad would be gone immediately.

What keeps those supporters on Assad's side? In a word, money. As long as he has enough to keep his cronies loyal, he will live to fight another day. Eventually he might lose the battle against the rebels, but that is down the road. If he runs out of cash, he will be gone today.

Assad must worry day and night whether enough money will come in to prevent big fractures in his backing among the ruling elite. So far, he seems to be managing this threat well. Al Jazeera reports that the total cumulative defections within his regime amount to just 73 individuals, almost none of whom are from the ruling Alawite clan and perhaps none of whom are from the inner circle of key backers. The press has made much, for example, of defections by Syrian diplomats, yet only one or two of 13 diplomatic defections have been by senior officials -- the former ambassadors to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the diplomatic defections have been by consuls and other lower-level functionaries.

Likewise, much was made of the three (out of 39) cabinet members who have defected since the uprising began, including Prime Minister Riad Hijab last August. But Hijab had been in office for just two months and was Sunni, not Alawite. Indeed, the defectors are almost never Alawites and are, therefore, almost certainly not members of Assad's winning coalition -- the people whose backing is essential to keep him in power. Assad's official inner circle, which comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, is mostly for show, while the true inner circle -- like the General Staff of the military -- is all Alawite. Their defection would be a risk to his survival; it is they who must be kept loyal and that means they must be paid better by Assad than by any credible alternative.

That then raises the question: Where does the money come from? The question is easy to answer: Iran, Iraq, Russia, and a bit from Venezuela. Assad is estimated to need about $500 million a month to keep his regime afloat. The Times of London reports that Iran alone has given Syria about $10 billion -- enough to sustain the regime for almost two years. The Iraqi regime is pledged to political neutrality on the Syrian rebellion, which turns out to mean that they are unwilling to interrupt their economic dealings with Assad's regime and they oppose sanctions -- ostensibly to protect the well-being of the average Syrian. They seem to have given billions to Assad as well.[[PAGEBREAK]]

If there is anything positive to be taken from the Syrian situation, it is that U.N. sanctions on Iran have so devalued that country's currency that Tehran may not be able to afford to sustain both itself and Assad for long. Given that choice, there is no doubt the mullahs will sacrifice Assad. How long it will be before they get to that point is difficult to say. There are factors pulling in both directions. Reports have surfaced of fissures between Ayatollah Khamenei and his head of intelligence over the cost of supporting Assad. These tensions have likely only grown as the rial has plummeted in value and as Iran has acknowledged sending elite forces to aid Assad. More intense sanctions against Iran might prove to be the most effective tool the West has to bring down the Assad regime. But it is far from obvious that doing so will improve the situation or serve the interests of any NATO member except for Turkey.

The beginning of the Syrian rebellion provided an opportunity for Western interests to step in and take an active role in organizing the more secular elements among the rebels. That, however, did not serve the electoral interests of Obama's core constituents or voters in other Western countries facing elections. Hence, with their own survival being foremost in their calculations, Western leaders did little to bolster pro-Western insurgents or to topple Assad by offering him a soft landing. While the West pondered its next steps, others, as must always be expected, saw an opportunity to organize the rebellion around their own agenda.

The majority of Syrians may not be religious fundamentalists. But as in Egypt's revolution and the 1979 revolution in Iran, the organized few are, and we should expect power to devolve to them when the Assad regime is brought down. As emphasized in our book, The Dictator's Handbook, the short-term political interests of politicians always trump the longer-term "national interest." And so it has been with Syria. A future American president will have to learn to deal with a possibly even worse Syrian regime. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama was prepared to acknowledge that waiting and doing nothing would saddle future leaders with an almost assured headache. After all, there were precious few votes among Democrats or Republicans for action today that would forestall disaster tomorrow.

Can the Nuclear Talks With Iran Be Saved?

The world's major powers are locked in a dead-end conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. Last week, talks in Istanbul between Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, ended badly, with no sign of a breakthrough on the horizon.

As the former head of safeguards for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I have spent much of the past decade watching the ups and downs of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. In the last few years, the stalemate has only deepened. During that time, I have learned that proposals and counterproposals too often fulfilled either one side's concerns or the other's, making it difficult to start the process of cooperation. Here's a proposal that could let both sides break this impasse and start rebuilding the trust needed to get at bigger issues.

The Iranians have been enriching uranium to 3.5 percent U-235 for the last four years, flouting U.N. resolutions and Western sanctions. Last February, they also began enriching to 20 percent, sparking further concerns in the West that Tehran is working toward the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

[[SHARE]]

Iran says it needs that higher-enriched uranium for fuel for its aging Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes for the country's hospitals. This is a widely recognized, legitimate need; every country relies on such radioisotopes, for example, in cancer treatment and other medical procedures. But the West is also legitimately concerned about Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent, not least because that gets Iran closer to the 90 percent enrichment required to make weapons-grade U-235. These concerns have grown as Iran has limited its cooperation with the IAEA and brushed aside questions about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

A tentative deal fell through last year that would have swapped much of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium for research reactor fuel that would have been produced by a Russian -- French -- U.S. consortium. Further talks have been inconclusive. And all the time, Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium continues to grow. It now has more than 3 tons, which should be sufficient, if further enriched, for one to two nuclear devices. In 2012, with the introduction of advanced centrifuges, Iran will be in a position to convert its current stock to high-enriched uranium in less than a year's time.

This troubling scenario is actually a golden opportunity for the United States and its partners to get together with Iran and agree to replace the TRR with a new reactor monitored by the IAEA.

The bottom line for Iran and the West is providing a secure supply of medical radioisotopes in a way that does not enable Iran to enrich uranium that could be diverted to a weapons program.

Iranians ought to be concerned about the safety of the TRR, which uses outmoded technology. It was located well outside Tehran when it was built in 1967, but the city's sprawling growth has seen apartment complexes and office buildings bump up against the research reactor site. And this is an earthquake-prone region.

[[PAGEBREAK]]

Currently, Iran is constructing a heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak that is not best-suited for radioisotope production and that produces plutonium, which has raised proliferation concerns. But this reactor design could be modified to accommodate a new research reactor using low-enriched fuel instead. After all, when Iran announced the Arak reactor plan in 2003, its stated rationale was that the TRR was aging.

Then, last June, the Iranian government said it would design another research reactor, to be operational in five years. Ali Akbar Salehi, the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, did not disclose a location or specifics -- all the more reason to seek a comprehensive solution for Iran's research reactor projects.

The offer to help build a new, more secure research reactor to replace the TRR could revive the fuel swap program, in which Iran would agree to send more of its enriched uranium out of the country to be converted into fuel for the new reactor. The outcome would provide Iran with a solid supply of medical isotopes and a new, up-to-date training facility for its scientists. And it would address proliferation concerns by limiting the increase of stocks of enriched uranium and future production of plutonium.

There would be a gap of a couple of years in which isotopes would not be produced in Iran while the new reactor wasbeing completed. To meet the medical needs of the country, one interim solution would be to follow the approach taken by many other countries: Iran could buy raw material from the world market and prepare medical isotope kits in Tehran using current production facilities until the new reactor with up-to-date hot cells is operational.

A modern, more powerful research reactor will require a substantial part of Iran's current stocks of enriched uranium -- ensuring that they are not available for further enrichment for weapons -- and provide a secure, reliable supply of radioisotopes for decades to come. It would only be a first step, however. Iran will still need to address the world's broader concerns about the scope and intentions behind its nuclear program. But successful cooperation on a new reactor might make those conversations a little bit easier.

The show must go on

Sorry pundits, there's little the United States can do about the protests in Iran. Better to plan for when the dust settles.

By Suzanne Maloney

If anyone needs another reminder of how minimal Americans' understanding of and access to Iran has become, the discourse in Washington over the past week certainly provides one. As scenes of Iranian bravery and bloodshed have unfolded, American pundits and politicians have fixated on President Obama's syntax and inflection. Although a passing familiarity with Iranian history, as well as Iranians' appeals for Washington not to meddle in their nascent movement, buttress the case for caution, the tempest over presidential semantics is at best a pointless exercise and at worst a distraction from the serious question ahead: How will Iran's internal crisis will impact U.S. policy?

The fact is, no matter how much Americans like to think they are the ones shaping events in Iran, it's just not true. The dramatic events in Iran have been wholly internally driven. They are the product of three decades of semi-competitive Iranian elections, a sophisticated population that warily guards its limited rights and freedoms, the tensions of a longstanding elite power struggle, and the ever-important force of unintended consequences -- among other factors. Better for the United States, then, to focus on those areas where it actually has some capacity for influence: namely, its own Iran policy, and more specifically, how Washington can move forward with engaging Tehran in light of the dramatic changes of the past 10 days.

As profound as recent events have been, engagement remains the only path forward for Washington. Whenever the dust settles in the tumultuous battle on the streets and behind the scenes, direct U.S. diplomacy continues to represent the most viable mechanism for addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions. After all, Obama's interest in engagement was never about the Iranian leadership, and until very recently, most experts expected a second Ahmadinejad term. Instead, the case for engagement was - and still is - rooted in the urgency of the world's concerns about Iran's ambitions and the even-less promising U.S. policy alternatives, such as military action or externally sponsored regime change.

Even if the upheaval in Iran does not inherently alter the rationale for engagement, however, it will likely exacerbate the potential pitfalls of implementing it. One line the administration is floating on engagement now -- that the consolidation of power under Iranian hard-liners will create incentives for a quick resolution of the nuclear standoff -- is certainly conceivable. But given Tehran's uncompromising rhetoric and recent resort to violence, this argument sounds suspiciously like wishful thinking. More likely, the United States is going to have to deal with an increasingly paranoid and dogmatic Iranian regime, which is preoccupied by a low-level popular insurgency and a schism among its longstanding power brokers.

This begs a lot of questions, foremost of which is: How can Washington get an even more thuggish theocracy to make meaningful concessions and credible, durable commitments to its historical adversary when Iran's own power structure is still shifting considerably? Fortunately, this is not an insurmountable hurdle, and a little history can help us clear it.

From 1980-81, the United States conducted hard-headed diplomacy with a revolutionary government in Iran, when the country was still in a state of unrest, to secure the release of American hostages seized from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. This challenge was at least as daunting as that of today. The Carter administration's negotiators faced an array of implacably anti-American interlocutors whose authority, credibility, and interest in resolving the crisis remained an open question throughout the dialogue. Moreover, Tehran's ultimate goals seemed unclear, possibly even unknown to its leaders, who often employed the negotiating process as a means of prolonging the crisis rather than resolving it.

An agreement to end the hostage crisis was ultimately reached. But it took months of intense work and many false starts, as well as a variety of tools, including secret negotiations and a third-party mediator and guarantor for the eventual agreement. Whether or not this kind of hard-won success can be replicated now is unclear. If anything, the stakes today are higher and the Iranian political dynamics are less promising, at least in the very short term. Still, charting a path forward for diplomacy is certainly the most constructive use of U.S. political capital and energy at this juncture.

But what about Iran's burgeoning democracy movement? And what useful role can and should the United States can play in advancing it? Given recent events, it was inevitable that some American pundits and policymakers would renew their calls for additional U.S. democracy assistance programs for Iranian reformers. This would be precisely the wrong move - not because it would compromise the climate for nuclear negotiations, but because Iran's own activists have consistently rejected such funding. They don't want it, and elections-related news such as the massive reformist vote monitoring effort suggests they don't need it. Better for Washington to focus efforts on where it can be both useful and welcome, such as last week's timely intervention to encourage Twitter to defer network maintenance during a crucial moment of the protests.

The first chapter of Iran's next great social movement has begun. Now it is time for Americans to put aside futile squabbling over the righteousness of their indignation and move on to more practical deliberations of where Iran and the United States go from here. In short, stop talking about talking and start talking with Iran.

Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

How the Palestinians should respond to Netanyahu

Arabs should stop complaining about Israel's aggravating prime minister and prove they're the more reliable partner for peace.

By Hussein Ibish

The response from Palestinian and Arab leaders to Benjamin Netanyahu's defiant foreign policy speech last Sunday has so far consisted mainly of throwing up their hands in despair. While understandable given the prime minister's intransigence on Israel's prior commitment to a complete settlement freeze and other key issues, this approach is not likely to accomplish very much.

By reproducing rhetoric from the 1990s that led to massive Palestinian frustration, Netanyahu may be hoping to provoke a reaction that is more visceral than strategic. If the Palestinians and Arabs adopt a less than constructive attitude at this stage, there is every danger that President Barack Obama and his administration will conclude that the Israelis and the Palestinians are simply two recalcitrant and irresponsible parties that are impervious to reason, and walk away to focus on other matters. But Obama's new approach, combined with Netanyahu's unconstructive attitude, presents a rare opportunity for Palestinian leaders to seize the initiative in the peace process.

Rather than simply dismissing Netanyahu's words, it is vital that they instead move quickly to draw a stark contrast based on a constructive stance of their own, and position themselves in as close alignment as possible with the American president. The Palestinians should be emphasizing their moves to fulfil their road map commitment on security, as recently demonstrated by the Palestinian Authority's bold and politically costly security operations against Hamas militants in the West Bank.

A new initiative to bolster security measures by combating incitement by militant groups, as Obama urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to undertake at their White House meeting in May, would strongly reaffirm Palestinian seriousness to fully play their part in promoting peace and would be an effective means of keeping the focus on Israel's continued avoidance of its own responsibilities.

It is also important that the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, express a sincere desire to engage productively in the peace process in response to significant Israeli moves such as a complete settlement freeze. They should frame such a move as operationalizing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Future public diplomacy efforts by the Palestinians and Arab States should also focus their attention on the mainstream American Jewish Community. A large number of American Jews support Obama's efforts to push Israel toward a settlement freeze, a fact Netanyahu is keenly aware of. He seems to be calculating that his rather tepid, theoretical acceptance of the concept of Palestinian statehood and his rhetorical invocations of Israeli nationalism might weaken support for the president's efforts. The extent to which Netanyahu is effective in gaining currency with this crucial constituency may be an important factor in determining whether the Obama can remain firm with the Israeli government without intolerable domestic political cost.

Obama has placed a great deal of political capital at stake on the issue of settlements. In order to successfully shift the Israeli government from its present position, he is going to need help.

If a settlement freeze can be achieved, along with reciprocal gestures from the Palestinian Authority and Arab states, such as maintaining security and continuing diplomatic overtures, the parties can move quickly into permanent status negotiations, tackling such bedrock questions as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and security. Many on the Israeli right, possibly including Netanyahu, would prefer to avoid these issues because they may not yet be prepared to take the necessary steps to advance peace.

By supporting Obama's position through constructive measures, Palestinians and Arabs can greatly strengthen the prospects that permanent status talks become unavoidable, and that with strong American leadership the parties could soon find themselves in serious peace negotiations for the first time since January 2001.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He blogs at http://www.ibishblog.com.

MAHMUD HAMS/Staff

What’s the matter with Turkey?

By Joshua W. Walker

The internal politics behind the country's strange recent behavior.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Ankara on Saturday, foreign-policy wonks are asking, "What's going on with Turkey?" Uncharacteristically, Turkey has been generating its share of headlines lately -- and not in a good way.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dramatic walkout at the World Economic Forum in Davos after an emotionally charged panel on the Gaza crisis, his call for Israel to be removed from the United Nations, and his posturing against an IMF agreement to help Turkey weather the economic crisis have left experts scratching their heads. With Turks heading to the polls for local elections in late March, Erdogan's "bring it on" attitude toward the West may be smart domestic politics, but it could have catastrophic repercussions for both Turkey and its long-time ally, the United States.

After leading the country through six years of unprecedented economic growth and undertaking far-reaching political reforms that have moved Turkey closer to realizing its dream of joining the European Union, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seem to be going astray. Turkey's European reform program is bogged down, the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire remains the third rail of Turkish politics, there has been little letup in the military's battles with the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, and strategic relations with Israel have virtually collapsed. The nexus of these problems is producing a nasty strain of Turkish nationalism, of which anti-Semitism -- a phenomenon largely alien to Turkey -- seems to be a central component.

Since Israel's December-January invasion of Gaza, a wave of anti-Semitism seems to have engulfed Turkey's political discourse. Even while emphasizing the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, the Turks have engaged in a crude form of what can only be called Jew baiting. For example, Erdogan averred that Americans did not see what was really happening in Gaza because "Jews control the media." Reports of threats made to Jewish-owned businesses in Istanbul and Izmir as well as the appearance of billboards plastered with anti-Semitic messages have alarmed Turkey's 27,000-strong Jews, whose ancestors escaped the Inquisition for the safety of the Ottoman Empire. Sylvio Ovadya, the leader of the Jewish community -- which generally keeps a low profile -- recently asked President Abdullah Gül to make anti-Semitism a crime.

The cognitive dissonance over this outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment is particularly jarring because Erdogan is no anti-Semite. After all, he spoke eloquently and forcefully in defense of Turkey's Jewish community after al-Qa'ida attacked two of Istanbul's synagogues in November 2003, is on record calling anti-Semitism a crime against humanity, and participated in the OSCE's 2004 Conference on Anti-Semitism that committed his government to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms.

But while anti-Semitism is cause for grave concern, the central problem in Turkey is a political system that one party -- arguably one personality, Erdogan -- thoroughly dominates. As polls point toward a resounding AKP victory in upcoming local elections, the party's domestic critics are increasingly concerned about the chilling effects of power left virtually unchecked. Turkey, they believe, has reached a critical juncture in its political development and they do not like the trajectory AKP has chosen.

The consolidation of AKP's political power has eliminated many of the traditional fault-lines in Turkey's perennial Kulturkampf. Few Turkey watchers would have ever believed that the military establishment and an Islamist-rooted political party could make common cause. Yet, the AKP is now riding a wave of popular sentiment that accommodates a previously irreconcilable mix of religious and secular nationalism. Oddly, Turkey has become more European, more democratic, more Islamic, and increasingly more nationalist simultaneously. In this complex political environment, the AKP has resorted to the lowest common denominators of economic and political populism to ensure its appeal among a large swath of the Turkish electorate that is angry at the EU, the United States, and Israel.

The prevailing mood in Turkey has come at the worst possible time for U.S.-Turkish relations. Proponents of a non-binding Congressional resolution recognizing the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide have already begun soliciting support among their colleagues. There is, of course, a moral imperative to address one of the darkest episodes of the last century, yet should the resolution pass, we can expect a sharp Turkish backlash. Ankara would likely close or strictly limit use of Incirlik airbase, which is a main logistics hub for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Turks already largely alienated from Europe, the combination of Erdogan's current posturing and the possibility that Congress will pass an Armenian genocide resolution could cause long-term damage to U.S.-Turkish relations, leaving Ankara without an anchor in the West and Washington without a strategic partner in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

The U.S.-Turkish alliance has undergone periods of great strain during the previous six decades. Shared interest in containing the Soviet threat was always sufficient to carry the bilateral relations during periods of tension. Yet, in the almost 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey's importance has not diminished. In fact, Ankara remains as critical an ally as ever as the Turks sit literally at the center of Washington's most pressing foreign-policy priorities in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucuses, Balkans, and Europe. As a result, the United States cannot afford to discount Turkey's regional role or internal instability.

Secretary Clinton will find the Turkey of today very different from the country she visited in 1999. It is not just "Islamist" political power, or the palpable buzz of Istanbul, which is on the verge of becoming a truly global city, or the sense that Turkey, with its newly minted seat on the U.N. Security Council, is a "player." It is all of these things. For years, Turks struggled with a debilitating sense of insecurity about their place in the world because they were, in the words of Turkey's founder Ataturk, trying to raise Turkey to "the level of civilization" -- i.e. Western civilization. Yet, the Turks have thus far been unable to crack the Western code, which above all else the European Union has come to represent. Europe, for its part, does not seem to want a country of 74 million Turkish Muslims. A whopping 81 percent of Austrians, for example, oppose Turkey's EU membership bid. Faced with the prospects of knocking on the gates of Vienna indefinitely, Turkey may simply look elsewhere.

Now, six years after the AKP came to power, Turkey's identity and survival are not entirely bound up in the West. Without abandoning its EU ambitions, Ankara has engaged its neighbors to the south and east, including Syria and Iran, and garnered the Turks newfound regional prestige after a long period of alienation from the Middle East.

Turkey today is a rising power in its region, a shift the United States should both acknowledge and leverage to its advantage. After all, Washington was initially critical of Ankara's growing ties with Damascus until it was revealed that the Turks were sponsoring indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. As Secretary Clinton gets down to business with her Turkish counterparts, it will become obvious that U.S. and Turkish interests actually converge across a range of thorny regional problems. Take northern Iraq, where the continued improvement of Kurdish-Turkish relations is critical to PKK terrorist camps. Or Iran, where Turkey has a direct interest in seeing that its neighbor and regional rival does not acquire nuclear weapons. Ankara's growing economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran should be seen as a leading edge for Washington as it seeks ways to influence Iranian behavior for the better.

Yes, the trend in Turkey's domestic politics may be troubling. But despite the problems associated with AKP's accumulation of unrivalled political power, Turkey is still clearly a vital partner for the United States. An Armenian genocide resolution or efforts to punish Turkey based on a simplistic view of Erdo?an and his party as being "Islamist" or instinctively anti-Semitic or anti-Western will likely backfire. Secretary Clinton will have to find a way to make this key alliance work.

Joshua W. Walker was a guest fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations during the summer of 2008 and is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Don't let Damascus out of the doghouse


By Tony Badran

Why engaging Syria on Bashar al-Assad's terms is a fool's errand.

For years, the regime in Damascus has been an international pariah, given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's support for terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, his family's heavy-handed attempts to dominate Lebanon, his broken promises on domestic reform, and his proxy war against U.S. troops in Iraq.

But now, with a new administration in Washington that has vowed to talk with its adversaries, Damascus has openly stated that it expects the administration to come rushing back in repentance. So far, however, the Obama team has been cautious.

On her Middle East trip, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made several important statements on Syria. Just before heading to the region, Clinton told reporters that it was "too soon" to speak of any U.S.-Syria thaw. Then, in her stop in Jerusalem, she told reporters that Washington would "not engage in discussions for the sake of having conversation. There has to be a purpose to them; there has to be a perceived benefit for the U.S."

Critics of the policy of isolating Syria have often made "engagement" seem like an end in itself, but through her careful remarks, Clinton clarified that engagement should be based on a clear understanding that talks are but a tool to an end. This is a welcome development. The Assad regime is notorious for dragging out processes and offering no meaningful concessions while extracting unilateral ones.

For instance, despite promising French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would send an ambassador to Lebanon before the end of 2008, Assad has yet to even name one, let alone dispatch him or her to Beirut. All the while, he has pocketed French concessions. Similarly, the French lobbied to renew discussion over the EU association agreement with Syria, which contains clauses regarding human rights and weapons of mass destruction. Yet, Assad is in the middle of a nuclear coverup scandal with the International Atomic Energy Agency and has publicly told the French that it is "forbidden" for any Westerner to raise human rights and democracy issues with his regime.

Given the history of U.S.-Syrian ties, it is important that Washington signal clearly from the very outset that it is prepared to walk away from the process if it is leading nowhere. With its economy wrecked by decades of mismanagement and shackled by sanctions, Syria needs the United States, not the other way around, regardless of absurd claims by certain analysts and apologists that engagement with Syria will magically cure the region's travails.

Meaningful engagement requires a proper understanding of the limited nature of Syria's relevance, assets, and what it really has to offer. By any measure, Syria is at best a secondary regional actor. Syria has no real economy to speak of. Its minuscule oil reserves, which are the regime's main lifeline, are dwindling, and the country has already become a net importer of oil. Its conventional military power is modest. Its only ability to project any influence has been through its sponsorship of militancy and violence and its ties to Iran, without which it would be relegated to the status of a marginal backwater. The regime's legitimacy hinges on radical narratives of "resistance and rejectionism" toward the United States and Israel. But the gap between the Syrians' actual importance and their self-image and sense of entitlement is vast.

What Washington wants from Syria is not help, but an end to misbehavior. The State Department has rightly defined U.S. policy objectives by making public a list of issues on which the United States seeks tangible Syrian behavioral change: support for terrorism, clandestine nuclear programs, subversion in Lebanon, and human rights at home.

The Syrians reacted with typical hostility. One regime mouthpiece even declared that Syria had "broken" the United States, and so it had no business making demands. Another told prospective U.S. delegations to Syria not "to waste their time and ours" if they intend to raise such issues as Syria's support for terrorist groups, as U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin did during his recent trip to Damascus. In Syria's view, it's U.S. policies that need changing.

In fact, since President Barack Obama's election, Syria has announced its own conditions for any "dialogue." Those include lifting of sanctions and removing Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In return, Syria has offered comically little: Reopening the American school in Damascus, for instance, is hardly a pressing concern for Washington.

A workable engagement policy requires bench marks and clear, irreversible, substantive deliverables from Syria. It needs all the leverage the U.S. government can bring, such as sanctions, which are proving exceedingly useful especially now that the economic crisis is hitting Syria hard. There should be no talk of lifting sanctions, or removing Syria from the terrorism list, before Assad moves first and in credible fashion. That isn't likely to happen for structural reasons.

For the engagement crowd, the coming diplomatic dance will be instructive. Clinton is sending two envoys to Damascus: acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and a senior National Security Council official, Daniel Shapiro. Feltman in particular is a solid choice. He understands Syrian thuggery and slipperiness firsthand, having been physically threatened by Syrian proxies during his stint as U.S. ambassador in Lebanon.

If history offers lessons, it's that engaging this Syrian regime is unlikely to be fruitful. Clinton's statement about engagement as only a means to an end will soon be tested. Damascus is clearly betting that the Obama team will confuse diplomacy with glibness. But if the secretary refuses to substitute process for purpose, the Syrians will likely be in for a rude awakening.

Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

File Photo: Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images

What Iran's nuclear milestone means

Iran's nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for the reasons you think.

By Jacqueline Shire

There are plenty of reasons to pay close attention to Iran's nuclear progress, but the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report showing that the country has accumulated 1010 kg of low-enriched uranium is not at the top of my list.

That's not to say that this milestone is insignificant. We now know that Iran has accumulated enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) to yield sufficient high-enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon should Iran decide to seize the material, which is under IAEA safeguards, further enrich it, and in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, use the material in a nuclear warhead. Luckily, given the international crisis this action would certainly provoke, Iran is unlikely to attempt the feat.

We've also learned that Iran has achieved its objective of successfully operating several thousand centrifuges. This has been a gradual process that began in earnest two years ago.

The report generated further concern because of a discrepancy in the accounting of Iran's uranium. According to senior U.N. officials, the discrepancy, which resulted in the underreporting of LEU in the November 2008 report by 209 kg, was an engineering miscalculation on Iran's part and not a deliberate attempt to mislead the IAEA. The net effect is that Iran crossed the so-called breakout threshold a few months earlier than expected. 

While legitimate cause for worry, these headlines obscure other equally important developments. One is that although Iran has installed upwards of 5,400 centrifuges, it continues to operate just under 4,000 of them, bringing into operation only one additional cascade of centrifuges since November. Is Iran suddenly more attuned to the optics of its nuclear program? Hard to say, especially given that it continues to stonewall the IAEA on access to a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak, and refuses to even discuss a set of documents that allegedly show research into nuclear warhead design.

Potentially more troubling is Iran's refusal to allow IAEA inspection of nuclear facilities not covered under traditional safeguards, in particular places where centrifuges are manufactured and stored. The consequence is that the IAEA has little knowledge of how many centrifuges Iran is manufacturing and where they are. It is conceivable therefore that Iran could make centrifuges that are not destined for the inspected site at Natanz, but for a clandestine facility. Because of another change that Iran unilaterally made to its safeguards relationship with the IAEA, it has declared that it will only inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities six months before they become operational.

These are the fine-print details of Iran's relationship with Vienna that don't garner flashy headlines, but are the real reason to keep a close eye on Iran's actions. 

Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security and a widely cited expert on Iran's nuclear program.

Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

It's time for the U.S. to get serious about Mideast peace

If George Mitchell’s peace mission is to have any meaning, the United States will need to begin acting like it has serious interests of its own in a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By Hillary Mann Leverett

One of the most frequently heard and utterly misplaced observations about America's mediating role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy is that "The United States can't want peace more than the parties." In reality, the United States can want peace more than the parties -- and it almost certainly does.

A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never drawn the support of more than a narrow majority of either Israelis or Palestinians -- and, much of the time, not even that. Such a solution meets only the minimum needs of each side. Palestinians are supposed to trade their grievances over the refugee issue for an end to the occupation of most of the territory seized by Israel in 1967 -- but not other territories Palestinians consider their historic patrimony. Israelis are supposed to relinquish territory and foreswear any claim to those parts of biblical Israel beyond the country's 1967 borders in return for formal Arab recognition of Israeli statehood. For these reasons, a two-state outcome will never win truly broad and deep political support among Israelis or Palestinians. Given this reality, it is essential that President Obama and his Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, do not repeat the fundamental mistake of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations -- letting domestic political dynamics among (primarily) Israelis and (occasionally) Palestinians define the parameters for U.S. diplomacy.

Indeed, if President Obama wants to move this issue, he has to take ownership of it. This means, first of all, getting everyone to the table who needs to be there -- including Hamas, an organic movement with deep roots and broad reach that speaks for many Palestinians. It also means keeping them at the table, even when, especially in the short-term, Palestinians continue to try to attack Israelis. Inclusion in negotiations cannot work if it is treated as a "reward" that the United States and Israel bestow for "good" behavior -- such an approach incorrectly assumes that the parties want peace at least as much as the United States and, thus, leaves the United States unable to pursue its interests in a vital region through active diplomacy. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama appeared to grasp this fundamental point, but now seems unwilling to follow through where Hamas is concerned, preferring to stand by the Bush administration's thoroughly dysfunctional "conditions" for dealing with Hamas.

Obama will also need to manage Israel's threat perceptions so that Israeli actions do not eviscerate possibilities for diplomatic progress. Israel frequently overstates the strategic significance of threats to its security -- as with home-made rockets landing in Sderot. At the same time, Israel commonly understates or ignores the destructive impact of its own actions, whether in the form of ongoing settlement activity or grossly disproportionate exercises of military force.

In his first comments on the Middle East following his inauguration, Obama said: "Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats" (emphasis added). We can only hope that the inclusion of the adjective "legitimate" means that the president will be willing to take a significant, even critical, step beyond President Bush and President Clinton's reflexive and uncritical endorsement of anything Israel did in its self-defined pursuit of "security." If President Obama is not willing to do this, then the man who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland will soon be relegated to the long list of failed U.S. envoys who preceded him in the Middle East.

Hillary Mann Leverett, who served as director for Iran and Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, is chairman of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images