A string of events across the Middle East is shifting the US-Iran regional power play. The Iran-led "axis of resistance" arrayed against the US, its Western allies, and Israel may appear ascendant, but new chances for peace could also redefine the game in the US's favor.
Syria and Israel announced last week that they had secretly resumed talking peace, through Turkish mediators, for the first time in eight years – each one crossing a divide forbidden by their own rhetoric. Few expect immediate progress. But the fact that a strategic ally of Iran – and of anti-Israel militants Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – is meeting with Israel is prompting speculation about potential change.
"There is a contest going on, an ideological battle, which spills over into proxies and military fighting," says Rami Khouri, head of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. "It's not as simple as saying it's an Iran-American confrontation, but they are the two symbolic poles of these different groups."
A further notable event is the recent Arab League-brokered deal in Qatar between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Lebanon's pro-Western government, which ended an 18-month political stalemate on Hezbollah's terms, as well as days of violence that cost 65 lives.
And in Iraq – where the US accuses Iran of exercising "malign influence" by arming and training militants – Iraqi soldiers deployed relatively peacefully into the Baghdad stronghold of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran played a role in getting Mr. Sadr's Shiite militia off the streets and ending fierce fighting that left more than 1,000 dead over the past two months.
On the peace track, Israel declared that Syria would have to cut ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas to regain the Golan Heights, occupied by the Jewish state since 1967. Syria rejected that demand outright, and instead on Wednesday signed a new defense agreement with Tehran.
"It won't be like the Israelis want, which is a complete break. That is completely out of the question [for Syria]," says Mr. Khouri, a former editor of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "But an adjustment is very likely, because a Syria-Israel peace will axiomatically mean that a Lebanon-Israel peace will … follow very quickly, and that would have huge implications for Hezbollah's rationale as an armed resistance movement."
Iran offer to United Nations
News of the Syria-Israel talks came as an Iranian offer addressed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, dated May 13 and called a "proposed package for constructive negotiations," was made public.
The proposal said Iran was willing to start talks on issues from its nuclear program to a "just peace … in regions that suffer from instability, militarism, violence, and terrorism," according to an unofficial translation. Iran would cooperate to "assist the Palestinian people to find a comprehensive plan" that was "sustainable, democratic, and fair" – effectively a peace deal with Israel, without using either word in the text.
"It's a significant departure in foreign policy. I think they are serious," says a political scientist in Tehran, who asked not to be named. "There is a sense of compromise [from Iran, born] primarily out of self-confidence. They think that they won in Lebanon; that they won in Iraq to a large degree. There is deadlock on the nuclear issue [so] it's a good time to be a little more soft and compromising."
Iran may also be looking beyond the US election, this analyst says. "This is part of an overall approach that may be a prelude … to show the next president that Iran could be worked with," he says. "If you are serious and treat Iran with dignity … there could be windfalls in other areas as well."
Analysts in Beirut and Tehran say Iran is not likely to prevent a Syrian peace with Israel, in the same way that – despite continuous lambasting of Israel – Iran has often stated that it will not undermine any peace deal acceptable to Palestinians.
"Peace with Syria would break up the current strategic situation because it would isolate Iran and silence Hezbollah," Israeli infrastructure minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel public radio on Tuesday. "We are talking about a true peace, an end to hostilities, an opening of the borders, and Israel is ready to pay the price for such a peace and coexistence with Syria."
But the weak government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not likely to be able to deliver.
"The only way to divide Tehran from Damascus is to give Damascus back all of the Golan Heights," says Toby Dodge, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Then things start to look much, much different. And that series of victories for Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran start to look less triumphant."
But noting that Iran serves as Syria's strategic depth, Mr. Dodge says he "would be surprised if [Syria] did get peeled away" from Iran.
Even if Syria were willing, "it's down to the Israeli government to be secure in itself, not just in its political sense, but in its existential sense, to do that deal," adds Dodge. "And I see no Israeli government [now] that can do that."
Three parallel tracks
Beyond that, Hezbollah's top priority is domestic politics, Syria's is the Golan, while Iran aspires to regional dominance.
"You have three parallel ... tracks, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. They are all mutually dependent and mutually supportive, but all have independent aspirations," says Dodge. "The axis is created through a unity of common interests. And if you were sitting in Washington … you would seek to work against the axis by seeking individual and not collective interests."
President Bashar al-Assad said Syria's ties with Iran would not weaken, telling British parliamentarians this week that "if Israel could question Syria's relations with Iran, then Syria could question Israel's ties with other countries, particularly the United States," a source familiar with the Damascus meeting told Reuters.
Still, Iran has moved fast to reinforce the resolve of the "axis of resistance." In Lebanon this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the Qatar agreement, which essentially granted Hezbollah veto power over decisions of the pro-West government, showed "greatly weakened" US influence.
In Tehran, Iran's defense deal with Syria on Wednesday pledged "mutual support regarding territorial independence," and called for withdrawal of "foreign and occupation forces, which are the source of insecurity and instability in the region."
And in Lebanon this week, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah marked the eight years since Israel's withdrawal, noting that negotiations "did not return to Lebanon a single inch of land" – only armed resistance brought "victory."
"There are two dreams; a Lebanese dream and an American dream," Mr. Nasrallah said. "The Lebanese dream speaks about a calm and peaceful summer and the American dream speaks about a hot summer," he added. "Come and let us realize our dreams, and not the dreams of our enemies."