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Posted by on May 22, 2008 in At TMV | 6 comments

Hold Me Tight, Iran

It’s hard to know what to make of reports that suggest that American trade with Syria actually increased last year. Remember, this is despite the fact that the Syrian Accountability Act (2003) leveled strict trade sanctions and barred the sale of most American goods. General Motors, Coca-Cola, and a few others corporations are apparently doing a brisk trade, however, effectively skirting the restrictions by shipping in their goods from overseas factories. Nonetheless, overall market access between the two countries has diminished and Syria is reportedly feeling the effects.

With fewer Americans products flowing in, Damascus has looked eastward towards Tehran. Trade between the two countries has jumped severalfold over the past few years, and sanctions appear to have played a pivotal role in pushing these unlikely partners from the “It’s Complicated” status of the 1980s to “Married” as of today.

From car-manufacturing plants and a proposed $2 billion industrial zone for Iranian businesses to plans to overhaul urban transportation systems, Iranian companies are charging into Syria, looking to cash in on a recent privatization push.

Weighed down by a behemoth public sector, an abrupt influx of nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees and falling oil production, Syria’s leaders are trying to liberalize their economy in hopes of avoiding a financial meltdown. In another time, the Syrian privatization effort might present an opportunity for the United States and Europe to use their enormous commercial muscle to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran, Washington’s foremost antagonists in the region.

But the United States imposed sanctions in 2004 as punishment for Syrian support of militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. These prohibited American exports to Syria and gave President George W. Bush the added option of outlawing American investment in the country, effectively scaring off American and Western companies from doing business there.

At the same time, Iran, the subject of two recent rounds of United Nations sanctions for its possible nuclear weapons ambitions and a three-decade boycott by the United States, has few opportunities to invest abroad.The end result, Western diplomats and analysts say, is that Washington has effectively pushed Damascus and Tehran into deepening their alliance of nearly three decades. (International Herald Tribune)

It is no secret that Syria has no great ideological affinity for the mullah regime – their regional and political goals are substantially different. Yet rather than try to draw Syria away from Iran, the United States has settled on an isolation policy that has, inadvertantly, pushed the two countries closer together!

It is a similar criticism to that which has, in hindsight, often been directed against the Kennedy administration in its policy towards Cuba. By severing economic and diplomatic ties with the Castro regime in early 1961, the United States forced the Cubans into the arms of the Soviets. Had Kennedy decided to adopt a policy of economic engagement, rather than enforced isolation, Havana would likely have tempered its relations with the Soviets in favor of closer ties with the Americans.

It’s a lesson that is lost on the Bush administration.