US embassy cable - 85DAMASCUS7872

SYRIA AND IRAN: ALMOST A RETURN TO STATUS QUO ANTE

Identifier: 85DAMASCUS7872
Wikileaks: View 85DAMASCUS7872 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1985-12-18 10:26:00
Classification: SECRET
Tags: PREL KPRP SY IR
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
O 181026Z DEC 85
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3672
INFO AMEMBASSY ABU DHABI
AMCONSUL ADANA
AMEMBASSY ALGIERS
AMEMBASSY ANKARA
AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD
AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
AMEMBASSY CAIRO
AMCONSUL DHAHRAN
AMEMBASSY DOHA
AMCONSUL JERUSALEM
AMCONSUL JEDDAH
AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD
AMEMBASSY KUWAIT
AMEMBASSY LONDON
AMEMBASSY MANAMA
AMEMBASSY MUSCAT
AMEMBASSY MOSCOW
AMEMBASSY PARIS
AMEMBASSY RIYADH
AMEMBASSY SANAA
AMEMBASSY TEL AVIV
USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
DIA WASHINGTON DC
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 DAMASCUS 07872 
 
LONDON FOR RAPHEL 
PARIS FOR WINN 
UNCINCCENT FOR POLAD LOWRIE 
 
E.O.12356:  DECL: OADR 
TAGS:  PREL, KPRP, SY, IR 
SUBJECT:  SYRIA AND IRAN:  ALMOST A RETURN TO STATUS QUO 
          ANTE 
 
REF:  A) DAMASCUS 7586, B) DAMASCUS 7844 
 
1.  SECRET - ENTIRE TEXT. 
 
2.  SUMMARY:  BY CUTTING OFF OIL TO SYRIA, IRAN 
SIGNALED ITS DISPLEASURE OVER THE MOUNTING SYRIAN DEBT 
TO IRAN, SYRIAN POLICIES IN LEBANON, AND MOVES TOWARD 
RAPPROCHEMENT WITH JORDAN AND IRAQ.  BY ALL ACCOUNTS, 
HOWEVER, PM KASM'S VISIT TO TEHRAN DECEMBER 1-3 
PRODUCED AGREEMENT THAT THE OIL SHIPMENTS ARE TO BE 
RESUMED.  THE IRANIANS CANNOT EXPECT SIGNIFICANT SYRIAN 
PAYMENT FOR PAST OR PRESENT DELIVERIES, BUT NOW THEY 
SEEM WILLING TO GO AHEAD ANYWAY.  THEY APPARENTLY HAVE 
BEEN REASSURED ABOUT SYRIA'S RELATIONS WITH JORDAN AND 
IRAQ, AND THEY MAY HAVE BECOME MORE RESIGNED TO SYRIAN 
POLICIES IN LEBANON. ASAD APPEARS TO HAVE EMERGED FROM 
THESE THREE MONTHS OF TENSION WITH IRAN WITH HIS BALANCE 
OF SOURCES OF AID INTACT.  END SUMMARY. 
 
SYRIAN PRESSURE, IRANIAN COUNTER PRESSURE 
----------------------------------------- 
 
3.  THE PERIOD SEPTEMBER TO NOVEMBER 1985 WAS ONE OF 
HEIGHTENED DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SYRIA AND IRAN.  FOR 
THE FIRST TIME IN THE RECENT RELATIONSHIP OF THOSE TWO 
COUNTRIES, THE FLOW OF IRANIAN OIL TO SYRIA WAS INTER- 
RUPTED.  AT THE TIME OF THE OIL CUTOFF IN LATE AUGUST, 
WE BELIEVED THAT THE PROXIMATE CAUSE WAS THE EFFECTIVE 
IRAQI BOMBINGS OF KHARG ISALND.  HOWEVER, THE IRANIANS, 
AS WE UNDERSTAND IT, WERE ABLE    FAIRLY QUICKLY  TO 
REPAIR THE DAMAGE DONE TO KHARG, WHILE THE OIL CUTOFF 
HAS CONTINUED UNTIL THE PRESENT. 
 
4.  IN SUM, THE IRANIANS WERE SENDING THE SYRIANS A 
SIGNAL.  THAT SIGNAL COINCIDED WITH SIGNIFICANT SYRIAN 
PRESSURE AGAINST THE IRANIANS IN SEVERAL SECTORS. 
FIRST WERE THE PALPABLY INCREASED SYRIAN STRICTURES 
ON HIZBALLAH AND THE SIEGE OF THE IRANIAN-SUPPORTED 
FUNDAMENTALISTS IN TRIPOLI IN LATE SEPTEMBER AND EARLY 
OCTOBER, RESULTING IN A DEFEAT FOR THE FUNDAMENTALISTS 
(AND THUS FOR IRAN).  IN THE SAME TIME PERIOD OCCURRED 
PRINCE 'ABDALLAH'S MISSIONS TO DAMASCUS, AMMAN, AND 
BAGHDAD WHICH LED TO THE PRESENT RECONCILIATION WITH 
JORDAN AND A SPATE OF RUMORS OF A RECONCILIATION WITH 
IRAQ.  THESE DEVELOPMENTS OCCURRED AGAINST A BACKGROUND 
OF THE MOUNTING SYRIAN DEBT TO IRAN, NOW POSSIBLY 
AMOUNTING TO SEVERAL BILLION DOLLARS.  THE IRANIAN 
GOVERNMENT WAS--AND STILL IS--UNDER PRESSURE FROM 
MEMBERS OF THE MAJLIS WHO ARE ANGERED BY SYRIAN FAILURE 
TO PAY ON THE DEBT; AND THE IRANIAN PRESS HAS RECENTLY 
HAD SOME VERY UNSAVORY THINGS TO SAY ABOUT SYRIA. 
 
THE KASM VISIT:  THE HEAT IS OFF 
-------------------------------- 
 
5.  BY ALL ACCOUNTS THAT WE HAVE SEEN OR HEARD, THE 
VISIT OF SYRIAN PRIME MINISTER KASM TO IRAN DECEMBER 1-3 
ALLEVIATED MANY OF THESE TENSIONS.  WE HAVE NOT YET 
FOUND SOLID CONFIRMATION THAT THE IRANIANS HAVE 
RESUMED SHIPPING OIL TO SYRIA, BUT A WIDE RANGE OF 
INTERLOCUTORS HERE--BOTH SYRIANS AND DIPLOMATS WHO HAVE 
HEARD FROM THEIR EMBASSIES IN TEHRAN--HAVE BEEN IN AGREE- 
MENT THAT SYRIA GOT ALL OR MOST OF WHAT IT WANTED ON 
THE ECONOMIC FRONT.  MINISTER OF ECONOMY 'IMADI, WHO 
TRAVELED TO TEHRAN WITH KASM, TOLD THE AUSTRALIAN DCM 
THAT THE IRANIANS AGREED TO RESUME OIL DELIVERIES, AND 
THE FRENCH DCM GOT THE SAME MESSAGE DURING A VISIT TO 
THE IRANIAN EMBASSY HERE.  OUR JAPANESE COLLEAGUES 
ASSERT THAT THE IRANIANS HAVE AGREED TO A NEW ONE-YEAR 
SCHEME INVOLVING THE IMMEDIATE RESUMPTION OF OIL 
SHIPMENTS.  (ACCORDING TO THE JAPANESE, THIS AGREEMENT 
PROVIDES   1 MILLION TONS FREE, 2 MILLION TONS FOR HARD 
CURRENCY, AND 2 MILLION TONS FOR BARTER.  IF SO, THE 
IRANIANS ARE ONCE AGAIN DISINGENUOUS:  IT IS EXTREMELY 
UNLIKELY THE SYRIANS WILL PAY HARD CURRENCY FOR EVEN 
2 MILLION TONS, NOR DO THEY HAVE GOODS WORTH THE 
EQUIVALENT OF 2 MILLION TONS TO BARTER.)  OUR KUWAITI 
COLLEAGUES ASSURE US THAT THE PORTION (THEORETICALLY) 
TO BE PAID FOR IN HARD CURRENCY IS TO BE DELIVERED AT 
"SIGNIFICANTLY  BETTER RATES" THAN OBTAINED UNDER THE 
PREVIOUS AGREEMENT OF APRIL 1985.  FROM SUCH REPORTS, 
IT APPEARS THAT THE IRANIANS HAVE RECOGNIZED THAT THEY 
ARE NOT GOING TO GET MUCH HARD CURRENCY--WHETHER FOR 
THE NEW SHIPMENT OR IN PAYMENT FOR THE OLD.  THE NET 
RESULT IS A SYRIAN VICTORY ON THE KEY DEBT/PAYMENT ISSUE. 
 
6.  MEANWHILE, ON DECEMBER 13-18 THE IRANIANS SENT 
THEIR MINISTER OF ISLAMIC GUIDANCE, MUHAMMAD KHATAMI, 
TO DAMASCUS (REF B).  KHATAMI WAS FULL OF WORDS OF 
PRAISE FOR SYRIA, WAS WARMLY RECEIVED BY ASAD  AND BY A 
HOST OF SYRIAN MINISTERS, SIGNED AN INFORMATION COOPERA- 
TIVE AGREEMENT, OPENED AN IRANIAN CULTURAL COUNCIL IN 
DAMASCUS, AND IN GENERAL GAVE A FURTHER REAFFIRMATION 
OF THE RELATIONSHIP. 
 
-------------------------------------------- 
THE IRANIANS MAY HAVE GIVEN UP ON SOME POINTS 
--------------------------------------------- 
 
7.  WE DO NOT WANT TO OVEREMPHASIZE THE POINT, 
BUT IT APPEARS TO US THAT THE NET RESULT OF THESE PAST 
THREE MONTHS OF INCREASED TENSION BETWEEN SYRIA AND 
IRAN IS A RESOLUTION AT SOME EXPENSE TO IRAN.  IF THE 
IRANIANS ARE RESUMING OIL SHIPMENTS AT THE PREVIOUS 
RATE OR NEAR TO IT, THE LOSS IS AN EXPENSIVE ONE--WORTH 
$1 BILLION/YEAR IN OIL.  ON THE POLITICAL FRONT, THE 
IRANIANS HAVE GIVEN UP POINTS AS WELL, 
PARTICULARLY AS REGARDS LEBANON.  THE JOINT COMMUNIQUE 
OF THE KASM VISIT TREATED LEBANON IN A WAY TO SUGGEST 
THAT IRAN NOW ENDORSES SYRIAN POLICIES IN LEBANON. 
SINCE IT IS CLEAR THAT IRAN OPPOSES MANY OF SYRIA'S 
POLICIES IN LEBANON, THIS ENDORSEMENT IS A REMARKABLE 
PUBLIC CONCESSION.  AT THE SAME TIME, WE DO NOT BELIEVE 
THAT THE IRANIANS HAVE PUT AWAY THEIR AMBITIONS FOR A 
FUNDAMENTALIST SHI'A-DOMINATED STATE IN LEBANON, 
ESPECIALLY SINCE IRAN'S ALLIES THERE ARE NOT PART OF 
THE SYRIAN-BROKERED TRIPARTITE NEGOTIATION.  WE WOULD 
NOT BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT THE SYRIANS HAD PRIVATELY 
MADE PROMISES TO THE IRANIANS ABOUT LEBANON.  THE PUBLIC 
STATEMENT MAY, THEREFORE, NOT BE WORTH THE PAPER IT IS 
WRITTEN ON, BUT IT DOES SUGGEST THAT IRAN MAY BE A 
LITTLE MORE RESIGNED THAN PREVIOUSLY TO SYRIA'S DETER- 
MINATION TO HAVE ITS WAY IN LEBANON. 
 
8.  AS REGARDS JORDAN AND IRAQ, IT IS CLEAR THAT THE 
SYRIANS HAVE GONE TO SOME LENGTHS TO REASSURE THE 
IRANIANS.  NOTHING HAS COME OF 'ABDALLAH'S EFFORTS 
FOR SYRIAN RECONCILIATION WITH IRAQ AS YET, AND NOTHING 
IN THE COMMUNIQUE EMERGING FROM TEHRAN WOULD GIVE 
REASON FOR OPTIMISM ABOUT SYRIAN WILLINGNESS TO IMPROVE 
RELATIONS WITH IRAQ.  AS FOR JORDAN, ASAD PROBABLY 
AFFIRMED TO THE IRANIANS THAT HE HAS GIVEN UP NOTHING 
AT ALL IN THE PROCESS, I.E., THAT THE RECONCILIATION 
HAS INVOLVED ONLY JORDAN'S COMING TOWARD SYRIA AND 
NONE OF THE REVERSE. 
 
9.  THE IRANIAN CONCESSIONS ON DEBT AND LEBANON 
ILLUSTRATE HOW IMPORTANT THE RELATIONSHIP WITH SYRIA 
IS TO IRAN.  THERE WAS A TIME WHEN WE PUT EMPHASIS 
ON THE SYRIAN CLOSURE OF THE KIRKUK-HOMS PIPELINE, 
BUT WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF ALTERNATIVE PIPELINES, 
THIS IS NO LONGER A COMPELLING ARGUMENT.  THE 
IMPORTANCE OF SYRIA TO IRAN NOW IS POLITICAL.  IRAN 
PLACES GREAT PSYCHOLOGICAL VALUE ON NOT HAVING TO 
CONFRONT UNITED ARAB HOSTILITY.  IT ALSO VALUES SYRIAN 
ASSISTANCE IN IRANIAN PURCHASES OF ARMS, ALTHOUGH 
IRAN COULD PROBABLY FIND OTHER AVENUES TO MEET ITS 
MILITARY NEEDS. 
 
10.  SECOND, THE RELIGIOUS-IDEOLOGICAL COMPONENT IS 
IMPORTANT.  IRAN IS AN EVANGELIZING NATION, BOTH 
ON THE ISLAMIC PLANE AND, PARTICULARLY, ON THE SHI'A 
PLANE.  LEBANON IS A KEY ELEMENT IN THIS MISSION; AND 
SYRIA HOLDS THE KEY TO LEBANON.  MOREOVER, SYRIA IS 
SYMPATHETIC WITH IRAN'S CRUSADE AGAINST THE SUNNI OVER- 
LORD OF IRAQ, WHICH IS A MAJORITY SHI'A COUNTRY.  A 
FACTOR OF POSSIBLE IMPORTANCE IS THE SHI'A/'ALAWI TIE. 
MANY OF THE IRANIAN MULLAHS VIEW THE 'ALAWIS AS 
HERETICAL AND DESPICABLE; BUT WE ALSO THINK IT LIKELY 
THAT AT LEAST SOME OF THE MULLAHS FEEL CLOSER TO THE 
'ALAWIS THAN TO THE SUNNIS.  FOR HIS PART, ASAD IS 
FIRST AND FOREMOST A SECULAR BA'THI, BUT WE NEVER 
UNDERESTIMATE HOW DEEP THE ETHNIC STRAINS RUN IN 
SYRIA, AND WE DO NOT EXCLUDE ASAD FROM THESE PREJUDICES. 
THE 'ALAWIS SHARE WITH THE OTHER SYRIAN MINORITIES A 
HOSTILITY TOWARD THE SUNNI MAJORITY; UNDER ASAD, THEY 
HAVE PROCLAIMED THEMSLEVES TO BE ORTHODOX SHI'A; AND 
ASAD IS THEIR LEADER, AS WELL AS--AND PERHPAS BEFORE 
BEING--LEADER OF THE COUNTRY. 
 
 
ASAD, THE CONSUMMATE BALANCER 
------------------- 
 
11.  WE DOUBT THAT KASM WENT TO IRAN WITH ANY 
SPECIFIC THREATS, BUT IT IS ALSO LIKELY THAT ASAD 
LET IT BE KNOWN POLITELY TO THE IRANIANS THAT HE HAD 
OTHER ALTERNATIVES--IN PARTICULAR, TURNING TO THE 
SAUDIS TO MAKE UP FOR THE CUTOFF OF IRANIAN OIL 
DELIVERIES.  IT IS, HOWEVER, A COURSE WHICH ASAD WANTED 
TO AVOID.  THE PRESENT SITUATION--OF HOSTILE BENE- 
FACTORS--IS ONE THAT SUITS ASAD PERFECTLY.  WHILE 
NEITHER OF HIS PRINCIPAL BENEFACTORS IS HAPPY, THEY 
GO ON BEING GENEROUS--IN LARGE PART BECAUSE OF THEIR 
MUTUAL ANTIPATHY.  THERE IS EVERY LIKELIHOOD, FOR THE 
NEAR TERM, AT LEAST, THAT ASAD WILL BE ABLE TO GO 
ON EXTRACTING LARGESSE FROM BOTH OF THESE GOLDEN GEESE. 
FOR THEIR PART, THE SAUDIS APPEAR TO SEE SOME VALUE IN 
THE SYRIAN RELATIONSHIP TO IRAN, AS THEY HOPE THAT 
SYRIA WILL USE IT TO PRESSURE IRAN NOT TO ATTACK THE 
GULF. 
 
------------ 
CONCLUSION 
------------ 
 
12.  THE REAFFIRMATION OF THE SYRIAN-IRANIAN 
RELATIONSHIP DURING THE KASM VISIT TO TEHRAN INDICATES 
THAT THE TENSIONS OF THE PAST THREE MONTHS HAVE ABATED. 
AS WE HAVE SUGGESTED IN PREVIOUS REPORTING, THERE IS 
CONSIDERABLE RESILIENCY IN THE RELATIONSHIP, DESPITE 
THE PROFOUND DIFFERENCE IN THE TWO COUNTRIES' CULTURES 
AND IDEOLOGIES.  FOR IRAN, THE RELATIONSHIP RESTS ON 
MORE THAN LEBANON OR A PIPELINE, IMPORTANT AS THESE ARE. 
FOR SYRIA, THE ECONOMIC ELEMENT IS VERY IMPORTANT, 
AND ASAD'S ATTACHMENT.TO IRAN MIGHT FALL BY THE WAYSIDE 
IF IRAN PERSISTED IN WITHHOLDING OIL (INDEED, WE STILL 
AWAIT CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE THAT OIL DELIVERIES HAVE 
RESUMED).  YET, IT IS CLEAR THAT ASAD PREFERS TO HAVE 
IRAN AS ONE OF HIS MAJOR BENEFACTORS, HE IS CONTENT 
WITH THE PRESENT STATE OF THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR (THOUGH 
AN IRANIAN INVASION OF KUWAIT OR A TOTAL DEFEAT OF 
IRAQ WOULD PRESUMABLY ALTER THIS VIEW--WHILE A "MERE" 
SUCCESS NORTH OF BASRA MIGHT NOT), AND HE SHARES WITH 
IRAN AN IMPLACABLE HOSTILITY TOWARD IRAQ AND ISRAEL. 
THE 'ALAWI-SHI'A BOND MAY BE A FACTOR OF IMPORTANCE. 
 
13.  BEIRUT MINIMIZE CONSIDERED. 
 
 
EAGLETON 

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