US delays Iran, Syria get-tough plans

Despite pressure from some officials within George Bush's administration, the United States is unlikely to get tough with Iran and Syria while Iraq remains unstable.

    The unfinished Bushehr nuclear plant south of Tehran

    "I think in both cases [Iran and Syria] the administration wants to work things out through diplomacy," said Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    With the presidency up for election in November and the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan still draining time, finances and political capital, the administration has decided against any aggressive shift in strategy toward two countries it has accused of developing illicit weapons programmes and supporting "terrorist groups", experts say.


    "We're not going to see anything new or anything ambitious until after the election and the stabilisation of Iraq," says Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.


    Serious problem

    Many foreign policy analysts consider Iran to be the more serious problem due to its construction of uranium enrichment facilities, which some suspect could become a precursor to a nuclear weapons programme. 


    The Iranian government has denied it is pursuing a nuclear bomb, saying its efforts are for energy purposes, an explanation Bush has rejected. 


    While the European Union trio of France, Germany and Britain persuaded Iran late last year to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct inspections, the IAEA recently accused Iran of failing to answer certain questions about its programme.


    So far, the Bush administration has chosen not to challenge Tehran on this issue in any dramatic fashion, preferring to let the international community take the lead. 


    'Two minds'

    "The administration doesn’t have an Iran strategy"


    George Perkovich,
    Iran expert, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    Some experts attribute this passive approach to a division within the Bush team.


    "The administration is of two minds," said Raymond Tanter, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who is researching US policy options toward Iran.


    George Perkovich, an expert on Iran and non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "The administration doesn’t have an Iran strategy."


    Rather, he says, Bush officials at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon are at odds over whether to intensify the current diplomatic approach by attempting to "squeeze" Iran into capitulating on the nuclear issue.


    "You have this tension [within the administration]," Perkovich says.


    On one side, he adds, there are those who believe Iran must be dealt with carefully and quietly, so as not to provoke new tensions in the region. 


    The other side, however, would like to see the US take more proactive steps to precipitate regime change in Iran, though even these hardliners are not advocating the use of military force at this stage. 


    No change

    US President George Bush has
    elections on his mind

    Perkovich says Bush has most likely concluded that a major turnover in the Iranian government, even if such a thing could be achieved by supporting opposition groups, would not induce any sea change in the Iranian weapons programme. 


    "I think [Bush] came to the conclusion that, even if you have a different regime in Iran, you wouldn't necessarily have a different nuclear strategy," he said.


    Barring any dramatic revelations about Iran's nuclear activities, the administration’s position is unlikely to change, says Shireen Hunter, an expert on Iran at the Centre for Strategic International Studies in Washington.


    "If it became clear that Iran had nuclear weapons or was trying to get nuclear weapons, then I think the situation would change with respect to the administration’s position," he says.


    Other concerns

    In the case of Syria, the administration is less concerned about weapons of mass destruction and more focused on Syria's ties to organisations acting against US forces in Iraq and against Israel, experts say. 


    Although Syria is thought by many to possess some chemical and biological weapons, it has no known nuclear programme. 


    What angered the Bush administration was the belief that the Syrian government had allowed Arab fighters to cross into Iraq before and during the war to launch attacks against the US, Murphy said.


    Syria has denied letting any Arab 
    fighters cross into Iraq

    "There was no question that it was happening," he says. "Today, I don’t think so."

    Since then, Syria has improved its standing concerning border security, says Murphy.


    "They have said they are doing their best to close the border."

    Both the administration and Congress, however, remain critical of Syria's connection to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That was one of the main reasons claimed by Congress when it passed the Syria Accountability Act last year. 


    The new law created a list of penalties, ranging from trade restrictions to limitations on the movement of Syrian diplomats in the US. Bush has the power to impose these penalties at any time. 


    Applying pressure

    Actions such as the Syria Accountability Act send the signal that the US is willing to get tough on Syria using a non-military strategy, says Amy Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington thinktank.


    "They are very interested in putting pressure on the [Syrian] regime to moderate itself," Hawthorne says.


    Considering the fact that Syria is not a major oil-producing country with relatively little foreign investment, the diplomatic pressure points are limited, she adds.


    "It's a very closed economy."

    Like Iran, Hawthorne says Syria might be looking ahead to the US elections before it decides what direction to take. 


    Though it is unclear exactly how or if the current US policy would change with a Democrat in the White House, the Syrian government will probably "hope that there is a new regime elected in November that will take a softer line on them," she concludes.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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