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A package deal on Iran and Syria

The Washington Post

By Jim Hoagland

Syria’s Alawite regime collapses from within and without. High-level defections march in step with rebel gains through the Sunni heartland. The Obama administration’s signature regional strategy — described in a Freudian slip by a French career diplomat here as “waiting from behind” — now badly trails events.

That would not constitute a disaster for Washington if the fate of Bashar al-Assad’s clan-dictated rule was an isolated affair. But there are moments when timing is everything in statecraft. Syria’s impending implosion is coming to a head just as President Obama runs out of time on his promise to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands.

His last best hope may now lie in linking the two crises in bargaining with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two most important foreign backers. They risk losing everything they have invested in that country by continuing to bet that Assad — and the Syrian state — can survive this war. That gives Obama leverage to use in countering Iran’s accelerating nuclear enrichment program.

“Iran has responded to the toughening of sanctions by speeding up its work on a bomb, not slowing it down,” says Jean-David Levitte, former French ambassador to Washington and, until May, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s diplomatic adviser. “We now have only a relatively few months to act before Iran’s nuclear effort becomes irreversible.”

Levitte believes that the six powers conducting nuclear negotiations with Iran have to make a final comprehensive offer. Failing Tehran’s quick agreement to such a proposal, the only courses left open will be acceptance of an Iranian bomb or military action to prevent it, he argues.

This is where Syria comes in. It is stomach-churning for me to suggest that Americans should work to salvage any part of Assad’s regime, which has slaughtered tens of thousands of Syrians. But the least bad option available may be for all powers to pursue two overriding, interlocking goals: Syria’s descent into a total bloodbath must be stopped. And Iran must agree to live up to its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations by forswearing atomic weapons.

This does not mean protecting Assad and those close to him. They have to go. But there are generals and other officials from Assad’s Alawite minority who could credibly stay on in a transitional government. U.N. officials have identified a number of them in private contacts with the U.S., French, Russian and other governments, diplomatic sources tell me.

A Syrian coalition that provides physical and political protection for the Alawites and Syria’s other minorities, while reflecting the Sunni majority’s new power, could convince Russia and Iran that they could maintain some influence — however reduced that influence should and would be. (Paradoxically, such a coalition might also quiet Israel’s apprehensions about the strong presence of Islamic jihadists in the rebel movement and exert moderating influence on Egypt’s growing derogation of minority rights.)

These are substantial, if difficult to achieve, carrots. But the alternatives are extraordinarily grim, as Levitte pointed out when he went public with his negotiating proposal this month here at the World Policy Conference, an annual gathering of foreign policy officials, scholars and other experts organized by IFRI, a leading French think tank.

Levitte suggests that the international community must now go either/or on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Iran finally agrees to restrict nuclear enrichment to 5 percent or less and exports its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium. Or the United States, having made this high-profile final effort, will gain broader international acceptance of an American-led military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability at some point in 2013.

Since Levitte spoke, Iran’s accelerated enrichment program and the sharp deterioration in Syria have convinced me that time is rapidly running out for a constructive settlement in either nation. They must be treated together if they are to be treated at all. Until recently, I had been relatively comfortable with Obama’s assertions that there is time to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran.

But the president’s other, more menacing statements on Iran weigh more heavily now. He has declared an Iranian bomb “unacceptable” and said that he was prepared to use military force as a last resort to stop it. Bibi Netanyahu’s likely reelection as prime minister of Israel on Jan. 22 adds additional urgency to Levitte’s last-ditch effort to avoid military strikes that threaten disastrous political and economic consequences for the world.

Levitte, now retired, made clear that he was not speaking for President Francois Hollande’s government. But under Hollande and Sarkozy, France has manifested its grave concern over Iran and Syria. Obama can count on active French support in making a high-profile negotiating effort. But U.S. leadership is necessary if such an effort is to have any chance to succeed.