Treat This With a Grain of Salt

The report of Iranian opposition figure Dr. Ali Reza Nourizadeh in the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat regarding the arms deal between Iran and Syria should be read with great caution.

First, the figures: in order to procure the weapons and equipment mentioned in the report, especially the MiG-31E fighters and the 400 T-72 tanks, Syria needs four or five times the sum that it is allegedly receiving from Iran. Syria still owes Russia $3.6 billion (even after Russia wiped out 70 percent of Syria's debt for 2005). So, where will Syria find $4 billion to fund the rest of the deal? There is no answer to this conundrum.

Is this even a new deal, or one which the Russian daily Kommersant reported in June? According to that report, Syria began delivery of MiG-31 fighters -- an upgraded version of a fighter whose production stopped in 1994, and the deliveries are being made with aircraft from Russian air force stock. The Kommersant report said that a deal including MiG-31 and MiG-29M fighters was worth $1 billion, and claimed that the real end-user was Iran, with Damascus serving as a "straw company" that will only keep a portion of the aircraft.

Russia has denied the existence of such a deal, but when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Israel he said that the arms deal is legal -- which means that there was no denial.

The defense agreement between Syria and Iran allows Tehran to keep its aircraft in Iran, with Syrian emblems and registry, but at Iran's disposal. If this is the same deal reported in June, it is best to examine whether Russia, more than Iran, is the bad guy in the story, since such a deal means that Moscow is violating the United Nations sanctions against Iran.

Nourizadeh's report in Asharq Al-Awsat deserves to be dealt with cautiously also because of the various political conditions accompanying the deal. According to these conditions, in exchange for Syria avoiding a diplomatic process with Israel, Iran will continue backing Damascus in its Lebanon policy. The support will consist of using "Iran's influence to prevent a session of the Lebanese parliament in order to elect a new president, and will continue its policies whose aim is the fall of the Siniora government."

This report also claims that there is a disagreement between Syria and Iran over Lebanon, and that Iran is trying to pressure Syria against conducting talks with Israel, in return for a favorable policy in Lebanon. This could suggest that the calls of Bashar Assad for peace have been made contrary to Iran's will and therefore greater importance should be attributed to them.

Lebanese sources say that Syria and Iran also do not agree over the issue of the international tribunal established to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. On this matter, Syria is feeling isolated, while Iran is siding with Saudi Arabia.

The bottom line is that if Iran can press Syria on Lebanon, it means that it does not need Damascus, which would then suggest that Syria would be in search for a new strategic partner. Or, perhaps the Asharq Al-Awsat report has been stretched too far.