Iran, Syria: 'breakthrough' week at UN?

The UN Security Council reached a draft resolution on Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and Iran is showing new openness to discussing its controversial nuclear program.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
The United Nations flag is seen outside its headquarters during the United Nations' 68th session of the General Assembly in New York September 27, 2013.

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Diplomacy is enjoying a high-profile heyday in the Middle East this week as the United Nations Security Council struck a deal on a draft resolution on Syria's use of chemical weapons, and discussion of Iran's nuclear program is gaining fresh momentum.

Over the course of Syria's more than two-year-old civil war, it's shown little sign of abating, and a recent move by nearly a dozen rebel groups to form an Islamist alliance suggests a radicalization of the fighters resisting the government of Bashar al Assad. But, in a positive step, President Assad has expressed a willingness to acknowledge the existence of and negotiate the destruction of his country's chemical weapons arsenal.

A deal struck on a draft resolution Thursday at the United Nations Security Council on chemical-weapons reduction represents the rare backing by Russia of a plan to curb Syrian weapons. Russia is a staunch supporter of Syria's government, and in the past has been a bulwark between Syria and any unified outside pressure. The UN's draft resolution would require Syria to turn over its chemical weapons and is legally binding, but it doesn't contain an automatic recourse of sanctions or military actions. Despite that lack of teeth, a US State Department official quoted in the Globe and Mail described the deal as a "breakthrough:"

“The Russians have agreed to support a strong, binding and enforceable resolution that unites the pressure and focus of the international community on the Syrian regime to ensure the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons,” the official said.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Russia, however, could be the original source of some of Syria's chemical arsenal:

Rep. Joe Wilson: Mr. Secretary, I don't mean to be rude, but where did the chemical weapons come from?
Hagel: Well, there's no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons — significant stockpiles of chemical weapons …
Wilson: (interrupting) … from a particular country?
Hagel: Well, the Russians supply them, others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.

All of this wrangling over Syrian chemical arms came to the fore after the Aug. 21 Sarin nerve gas attack on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus.  UN weapons inspectors said the chemicals were delivered by means of surface-to-surface rockets, weapons not known to be possessed by rebel fighters.

The UN inspectors have begun to probe allegations of seven other chemical or biological weapons attacks in Syria, three of which may have occurred after the deadly incident on Aug. 21, Reuters reports.

The three most recent incidents were in Bahhariyeh and Jobar, both east of central Damascus, on August 22 and 24, and Ashrafiat Sahnaya to the southwest of the capital on August 25, the U.N. statement said.

And while the attack points to the importance of decommissioning the Syrian stockpile, US experience suggests that the effort is an almost-certain case of "easier said than done." The Guardian notes:

If the Obama administration wants an example of the difficulties involved in destroying chemical weapons, it might reflect upon its own struggles to get rid of cold-war era chemical arsenals stockpiled in tightly controlled storage facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.
The United States promised, but failed, to destroy these stocks by 2012 at the very latest. The most recent forecast from the US is that the process of "neutralising" the chemicals in its Colorado weapons dump will be finished by 2018; the date for Kentucky is 2023.

That pessimism is not publicly shared by the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, however. The group released a statement earlier this month saying:

"Following decisions that are proposed to be taken by the Executive Council of the OPCW, necessary measures will be adopted to implement an accelerated programme to verify the complete destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, production facilities and other relevant capabilities."

Atomic negotiations with Iran

Meanwhile in Iran, talks on the country's controversial atomic program are proceeding even as, the Jerusalem Post reports, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sounded a note of caution:

"This is the first meeting so nobody I guess should expect that in just (a) one-day meeting we can solve (our) problems," [Reza] Najafi, who was appointed new Iranian ambassador last month, said.

"We are going to have a first meeting with the agency. We expect to review the existing issues and also exchange views on the ways we can continue our cooperation to resolve all issues."

This doesn't particularly clash with an interview by the Washington Post with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the atomic program's negotiation timeline:

"The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s 3 months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s 6 months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years," [President Rouhani said].

Iran's sometimes rocky relationship with the international community and the IAEA could easily rear up again, of course, and the country has its own demands: sanctions relief is high on the list, as well as Israel signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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