Political Comment (28 May 2012)
Iran and the P5+1 found sufficient common ground in their talks in Baghdad to agree to continue negotiations in Moscow next month. The upheaval in Syria is threatening to spill over into Lebanon after the assassination of two prominent members of the anti-Syrian coalition. The Syrian National Council has accepted the resignation of its newly-elected president.
Iran And P5+1 To Continue Talks
Prior to the 23-24 May nuclear talks in Baghdad between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano visited Teheran on 21 May and came away sounding unusually hopeful, saying the next day that "a decision was made to conclude and sign" an inspection agreement, and "I can say it will be signed quite soon." The Americans' reaction to this announcement, while wary, also contained positive language, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying on 22 May that "promises are one thing, actions and fulfillments of obligations are another. The announcement today is a step forward. It's an agreement in principle. It represents a step in the right direction." This positive atmosphere seems to have carried over into the first day of the Baghdad meetings, since a "senior US official" was quoted as saying on 23 May that the talks showed a "fair amount of disagreement," but "I believe we have the beginning of negotiation." A similarly guarded assessment of the situation from both sides of the table was evident after a second day of negotiations ended on 24 May with agreement to meet again in Moscow on 18-19 June. The head of the P5+1 delegation, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, issued a statement saying that "having held in-depth discussions with our Iranian counterparts over two days - both in full plenary sessions and bilaterals – it is clear that we both want to make progress, and that there is some common ground. However, significant differences remain." Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, for his part, told a press conference that "talks were intensive and long. They were detailed, but are left unfinished. The atmosphere of these talks was positive for the two sides to talk about their issues in a clear way. We believe the result of these talks was that we were able to get to know each other's views better and more."
Although at MEES press time there had been no official reaction from Israel, it is unlikely in the extreme that the less than clear-cut result of the Baghdad talks would be welcomed by the Israelis, who would clearly like the negotiations to break down completely or result in a credible Iranian commitment not to study physics beyond high school level. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was therefore only acting preemptively when she told reporters on 24 May that "as we lay the groundwork for these talks, we will keep up the pressure as part of our dual track approach. All of our sanctions will remain in place and continue to move forward during this period." Yet even Mrs Clinton had to admit that although "it's very clear that there is a lot of work still to do…yet, at the same time, I have to say that this is the second of two serious meetings after a gap of at least 15 months where there was no contact and no discussion about any of these matters." It was little wonder that on the same day the State Department announced that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman would fly to Israel the next day to discuss bilateral and regional issues and would "reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel's security."
Lebanon Skates On Thin Ice
Thus far, either through luck or sheer war fatigue – or perhaps because Lebanon has no coherent government to target – the Lebanese have been spared the upheavals of the Arab spring and the repercussions of Syria's year of civil strife. But the longer the crisis in Syria continues, the greater the danger of contagion, particularly since the Lebanese population and government are divided into pro and anti-Syrian camps, and these differences were highlighted on 20 May when two prominent members of the anti-Syrian March 14 political alliance, Shaikh Ahmad 'Abd al-Wahid and Shaikh Muhammad Husain Miraib, were shot dead at an army checkpoint in the Akkar region in north Lebanon. This inevitably aroused suspicions that they had been been assassinated by pro-Syrian elements in the army and touched off fighting between pro and anti-Syrian groups in Beirut and elsewhere. The army's response was to issue a statement promising to "immediately form an investigative committee comprised of senior officers and military police under the relevant court," while Prime Minister Najih Mikati declared that "the government…will take all measures necessary to preserve civil peace." Developments in Lebanon also attracted the attention of Saudi Arabia's King 'Abd Allah, who implicitly but clearly put events there in the wider context of the growing regional friction between Sunnis and Shi'as in a letter to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on 22 May in which he said that "Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned and is following up on the recent developments of Tripoli events, especially the targeting of a main sect in the country's social fabric" and that "we are looking to your…attempts to interfere to end the crisis…and keep Lebanon away from foreign struggles especially with the Syrian crisis nearby."
Unfortunately an apparently unrelated incident exacerbated Lebanon's problems on 22 May when 13 Lebanese Shi'a pilgrims were kidnapped near Aleppo in northern Syria as they returned from a pilgrimage to Iran, leading to violent demonstrations in Beirut's Shi'a southern suburbs and elsewhere. The hostages were reportedly abducted by unknown parties who are seeking to exchange them for detainees held by the authorities – and therefore could be any of the disparate groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – and various attempts at mediation had produced no results towards the end of the week. In the meantime, the leader of the powerful pro-Syrian Shi'a group Hizbollah, Shaikh Hasan Nasrallah, did his best to contain the situation by warning on 22 May that "blocking roads or carrying out any act of violence or individual action will not help this case at all," while the next day the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) demanded "the immediate release" of the hostages and called on the FSA "to do everything they can to free the Lebanese brothers." For the moment, it looks as if the immediate danger of contagion has receded, But, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on 23 May, "there is now …a real threat of the conflict spilling over into Lebanon. Given the history and ethnic and religious make-up of the population, and the principles upon which the Lebanese state is based, it could end very badly."
SNC Accepts Ghalioun's Resignation
In a further sign of the chronic divisions within the Syrian opposition, the umbrella Syrian National Council (SNC) announced on 23 May that it had accepted the resignation of SNC President Burhan Ghalioun, barely a week after reelecting him for a further three months on 15 May. A statement from the council's 12-member executive bureau, the organization's top decision making body, said that Mr Ghalioun – who offered to resign on 17 May – would remain at the head of the SNC until a new president is elected at a meeting of the 50-member general secretariat in Istanbul on 11-12 June.
© Copyright MEES 2012.