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Colin Chapman: It's probably an understatement to say that Iran is apprehensive and concerned by the daily news from Syria, not least because it impairs its ability to be a Middle East hegemon. Be that as it may and despite sanctions, Tehran is still defiant on its nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was quoted by state media this week as saying there are now 11,000 centrifuges active in uranium enrichment facilities. That's 10 percent more than the International Atomic Energy Agency announced in May. And just this week, a senior Iranian delegation has been in North Korea announcing joint strategic projects. Still, talks are going on between the Americans and the Iranians and also between the Iranians and the European Union. So what's going on behind the scenes?
Welcome to Agenda with George Friedman.
George, I recall on the eve of the second Gulf War, there were these kind of contacts with Saddam, but they were fruitless. What do you make of these talks with Iran?
George Friedman: There's been contact going on, both openly and quietly, between the West and Iran for quite a while. What makes this particularly interesting is the situation in Syria. We have been talking about the possibility of an Iranian sphere of influence extending from Afghanistan to Lebanon, should al Assad have survived and been a pawn or satellite of the Iranians. Right now his survival looks more and more problematic. We look at the Russians, and the Russians are backing away from him and this is important for two reasons. Firstly, it reduces the amount of support al Assad has. And secondly, the Russians are very good in understanding what's happening in Syria because of their intelligence capabilities going back to the Cold War. If they're getting uneasy, then everybody should be. That means the Iranians are facing a kind of reversal and the Iranians are re-evaluating their situation. They are not going to have that sphere of influence. The question now will become whether or not what happens in Syria spills over to Iraq — something that Iran doesn't want to see happen. And Iran may be more motivated to talk now on a broader scale than it was before. The problem is that right now with Iran having problems, the West, the United States in particular, may be less interested in talking. So the problem has always been that when one side is interested in talking, the other isn't. But perhaps under these circumstances with the Iranians somewhat more ill at ease, if you will, about the world and the Americans also ill at ease, there might be a basis for conversation.
Colin: Two aspects of these talks appear to have been the possible installation of a red button between Washington and Tehran, maybe even two red buttons involving defense chiefs. And there have also been meetings with the European Union.
George: Iranians are not going to be looking to the EU to provide guarantees, provide provinces; they want to hear that from the Americans. So this is part of the diplomatic process, it's not trivial, but it's not decisive. Iran wants to be talking to the players that are going to be making and enforcing the decisions on their side and that's not the EU. It may be Germany, it may be France, may be the United Kingdom and may be the United States — it will certainly be the United States, but the EU is not something that I think the Iranians regard as a major interlocutor.
Colin: And the red button?
George: Yes, the red phone, as it was called in an Iranian newspaper, which is really a hotline. If you remember there was a hotline that was created between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War. The United States actually raised the question of some sort of hotline with Iran back in 2011. Once in the context of making sure that there was no misunderstanding as to what's going on in the Strait of Hormuz and that came from Adm. Mullen I believe, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff there. And then one by another chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dempsey, talking about it in terms of nuclear relations. This was floated. It was responded to in a newspaper that's very close to the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] in Iran, and so we take it seriously and it was primarily to point out the difficulties. The difficulty that was pointed out in this article was essentially that you don't have the kind of relationship you have with Russia and the United States in the Cold War where the Americans and the Russians completely controlled their weapons systems and any misunderstanding could very quickly be translated into orders to stand down. In the case of what's going on in the Persian Gulf, the Iranians pointed to the Americans shooting at a vessel off the United Arab Emirates' coast and said look these things happen so quickly nothing can be done about them. And they also pointed out the fact less clearly but it was there in the article, that there's a lot of shipping going on in the Strait of Hormuz, it's going to be very hard for anyone to control it, including Iranian vessels. The tone was interesting, however. It was a technical discussion, it was not in this article a rejection of the great Satan, it was not something to dismiss the idea as something unworthy of consideration, it was a discussion on the mechanics. And that it appeared in this newspaper, Javan, really I think was interesting, giving a hint of what might be being discussed behind the curtain.
Colin: Yes, now the Japanese Kyodo news agency has reported that a senior military delegation from Iran has been to North Korea with both sides agreeing to strengthen cooperation and so-called strategic projects, apparently including the development of nuclear and ballistic missiles.
George: What was interesting is that it was publicized. That despite ongoing contacts between Iran and North Korea, the Iranians and the North Koreans decided to publicize it, but then they both have reasons to. The Iranians are very uncomfortable with the situation in Syria, the level of violence in Iraq, which they fear will hinder their control. They're signaling that they have options, that they have the ability to mount a threat. The North Koreans also have just had a shift in power in which the head of the military was dismissed by some reports in rather violent terms, and they also want to let it be known that they have options, that they're not isolated. So I think what was most interesting about these talks was that there are publicized so deeply but very frankly given the current situation, the level of physical cooperation possible between the two countries is limited and the time frame of these projects are pretty long. It's unlikely that the situation that they're facing can possibly be affected by these projects right now.
Colin: You know much has changed since we last talked about the Middle East. We have the Syrian regime moving toward its end. We have radical Islam growing in strength and a general concern about the prospects of further instability. How do you see this evolving in the coming weeks?
George: Well at the moment al Assad in Syria has clearly retreated. We can assume from this it's very hard to come back from a retreat when you're in his position but he's trying it. We can assume that at some point here, he's going to be seeking an exit strategy either through the Russians or some other players. Now, if that happens, then the Iranian threat has subsided to some extent. Hezbollah is isolated in Lebanon. Whatever government you have in Syria will certainly not be pro-Iranian, and then we're going to focus on Iraq. Because Iraq is an area of major national strategic interest to Iran, it is a country in which it has had a great deal of influence in the past. But it's also country that was going to be its springboard. And now that it's not its springboard, the question is what happens to the stability of Iraq. And we've seen recently, substantial violence breaking out from al Qaeda, a Sunni group, challenging the existing government. I think the next thing to look at in the next few weeks is what happens in Iraq. The Syrian situation being what it is, it is likely that Sunni elements or elements close to the United States may try to press the advantage in order to create a more anti-Iranian regime in Baghdad. It certainly won't happen in the next few weeks, but we'll get the indications whether this is on anybody's mind.
Colin: George Friedman ending Agenda for this week. Thanks for watching us, until the next time, Goodbye.