Syria and Iran - Axis of Evil or Brokers of Peace?

It's all a very far cry from three years ago. Now, with George Bush and Tony Blair facing their last days in office shorn of authority, they have turned in desperation to the unlikeliest of partners. And this is why...

It was probably a slip of the tongue. Downing Street insisted yesterday that Tony Blair never meant to agree with his interviewer, David Frost, that the invasion of Iraq had turned out to be "a disaster". But the contretemps was an apt finale to a bad week for the Prime Minister and his closest ally, George Bush.

As they approach their final days in office and begin to think about their perceived legacy, both leaders are haunted by Iraq's slide into anarchy and civil war. They hoped to bring about a new era of peace and democracy in the Middle East; instead they are seeing Iraq turn into the kind of terrorist hotbed they claimed it was under Saddam Hussein. Now the only priority for Britain and the US seems to be to find a way out.

And the search for an exit strategy is causing them to turn to the unlikeliest "peace partners": Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran - who glorifies the country's nuclear programme and insists Israel should be "wiped off the map" - and Bashar Assad of Syria, who was left out of President Bush's original "Axis of Evil", only to be included later. We are clearly a long way from the triumphalist days of 2003, when Saddam's statue had no sooner been toppled than Washington neocons such as Donald Rumsfeld were openly speculating whether Tehran or Damascus would be the next destination. "Wimps stop at Baghdad" was the boast of the hour.

Now Mr Rumsfeld has gone, and James Baker, a close former aide of Mr Bush's father, is leading the Iraq Study Group (ISG), charged with seeking some new options in Iraq. It is a measure of Mr Blair's distraction that the week began with a Downing Street briefing that he would propose dialogue with Iran and Syria when he spoke to the ISG on Tuesday, only for this to set off so much speculation that when he made his annual foreign affairs speech at the Guildhall on Monday, the Prime Minister appeared to be going out of his way to denounce both countries.

Iran in particular: "Not only had Tehran rejected the US offer of direct talks if it abandoned its nuclear enrichment programme," said Mr Blair, "it was seeking to put pressure on America and Britain. So they help the most extreme elements of Hamas in Palestine, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Shia militia in Iraq."

It is known that Britain sees less prospect of Tehran being co-operative than Damascus, with which it is doing a considerable amount of business behind the scenes, but the Prime Minister would also have been aware that the attack which killed four British troops in Basra on Remembrance Sunday could well have had Iranian elements behind it.

It was not only London which appeared to be putting out mixed messages, though. On Monday, Mr Bush, meeting Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Oval Office, repeated that there could be no talks with Iran unless it stopped uranium enrichment. Only 48 hours later David Satterfield, the State Department's co-ordinator for Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US was ready "in principle" to discuss the Iraq crisis with Iran, but the exact timing was "uncertain".

Iran is openly relishing the confusion. Mr Ahmadinejad said his country would talk to the US government, "should it correct its behaviour", while Tehran's official spokesman, Gholam-Hossein Elham, consciously echoed American rhetoric in setting its conditions. "We hope the US will withdraw from the region, abandon its hegemonic policies, end its support for terrorist groups and Israeli state terrorism, and give a positive response to the demand of regional nations calling for peace and justice," he said.

Dealing with Iran, a confusing mixture of theocracy, democracy, Persian pride and a victim complex, is never easy at the best of times. Its real leader is the shadowy Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but its public face is President Ahmadinejad, who, when he is not demanding the demise of Israel, likes to point out that Saddam used weapons of mass destruction against his country, before adding: "Who, in fact, armed Saddam with these weapons?" The uncomfortable answer, as he knows, is America.

For all his rhetoric against "Zionism", Mr Ahmadinejad sticks to the Iranian line that its nuclear development is purely for peaceful purposes. But even many Iranians fear that he is sympathetic to an extreme form of Shia Islam which believes in hastening Armageddon,

Some believe more could be gained from seeking to work with President Assad. He may be the son of a blood-soaked dictator who is not shy about suppressing opposition himself, but he is more secular-minded than the Iranian leadership. Certainly Britain appears to believe he is worth cultivating: Mr Blair, swallowing the humiliation of his 2001 visit to Syria immediately after 9/11, when he was publicly lectured by Mr Assad on the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters, sent his top policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus this month.

The Syrian leader is playing his part in this courtship. Not long ago, he was talking of Israel as a country "based on treachery" and a threat "since its very inception", but now he is indicating that Syria might not only be able to get along with Britain and the US, but could live side by side with its historic enemy. "We want to make peace with Israel," he said recently.

Just a few months ago, in the wake of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, President Assad spoke of recovering the Golan Heights, Syrian land occupied by Israel since 1967, by force if necessary. Last week a senior minister explained to The Independent on Sunday that the President believed there was a six-month window of opportunity for peace. If the chance was not grasped, Mr Assad feared another conflagration in the region.

All this heartens Mr Blair, who insisted at the Guildhall that the key to a solution in Iraq lies in resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Britain is hinting that this could be accompanied by a return of the Golan to Syria. But it looks much less simple in Washington, which is furious with Damascus over its behaviour in Lebanon and its support for Hamas and Hizbollah.

US analysts see two big potential incentives for Syria, apart from large-scale economic aid. There could be recognition of Syria's special role in Lebanon, as well as getting back the Golan. But the former would make a mockery of US claims to be fostering a "cedar democracy". As for the Golan Heights, they are not in the gift of the US, but of Israel. And why should Israel, smarting from its failed summer war to eradicate Hizbollah and burnt by the repeated failures of "land for security" deals, agree to such a dramatic concession?

The problem for the US is that George Bush's war of choice in Iraq has cost him control of Congress and arguably left his country weaker on the international stage than it has been for more than a generation. The self-styled "decider" who used to challenge his foes to "bring 'em on" now faces the most difficult decision of his presidency.

Washington is being pulled in three directions at once: by its desperate wish to get out of Iraq, by its alliance with Israel, and by its insistence that Iran, its arch-enemy, must stop its suspected military nuclear programme. The growing realisation is that if the US wants to avoid humiliation in Iraq, the road passes through Tehran. But the "international community" (the UN Security Council) is split on how to punish Iran for its nuclear transgressions.

Most importantly of all for Mr Bush: what would Israel say? The Jewish state sees Iran in general, and Mr Ahmadinejad in particular, as an existential threat, and an Iranian bomb as the instrument of a second Holocaust.

As one of the leading cheerleaders for war in Iraq recently admitted, there are no good options any more, and Tony Blair would have been right to confess on al-Jazeera that the whole enterprise has been a disaster. Not only has his partnership with Mr Bush left him bound inextricably to the lamest of lame ducks, but both men are facing the prospect of doing business with two leaders they might once have hoped would share the fate of Saddam Hussein.

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