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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick