Russia, US to meet on whether Iran should attend Syria peace talks
This combination of two recent pictures made on January 9, 2014 shows (at L) Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in a picture released by the Iranian Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. [AFP]
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to meet today to decide whether Iran should take part in the Geneva II conference on Syria, which is scheduled for Jan. 22.
American objections, and that of the Syrian opposition, to inviting Iran is a mistake, regardless of one’s views on its direct and substantial support for Bashar al-Assad. Tehran’s absence will make the chances of the conference’s success even slimmer than they already are.
It is difficult to understand the logic behind such a stance. Objections based on Iran’s support for Assad are invalid because his allies China, Iraq and Algeria are attending, not to mention the conference’s co-organizer Russia. Besides, the very point of these negotiations - indeed any negotiations - is to bring rival sides together.
Iran “is the only country that has put its own military people into the fight on the ground, that is a unique position,” said a senior U.S. official, explaining his government’s reluctance to invite Tehran. If that is the case, all the more reason why it should attend.
Iran is one of the biggest players in the conflict. Its participation may encourage it to play a constructive role in finding a resolution - a chance worth taking, no matter how slim. Exclusion will only encourage it to play spoiler and continue its support for Assad, whose position is arguably stronger than it has ever been since the uprising against him began.
As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said: “Iran needs to contribute to peace in Syria along with others in the region... It is a very important regional power. Logically, practically and realistically they should be a part of this meeting.”
Kerry’s suggestion that Iran could play a role “from the sidelines” of the conference is condescending, and has unsurprisingly been rejected by Tehran, which has said it “will only accept offers that preserve [its] honor.”
The United States realized, albeit belatedly, that it had no practical choice but to engage with Iran when it was occupying - and trying to extricate itself from - neighboring Iraq. The same rationale should apply over Syria. In this regard, trying to work with Iran’s recently-elected reformist President Hassan Rowhani would be easier than with his firebrand predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Benefits of Inclusion
So far, Rowhani seems to be trying to steer his country toward more conciliatory foreign policies - shutting Iran out of talks on Syria would harm those efforts and play into the hands of his hard-line opponents.
An invitation, which Iran has said it would accept, may help its rapprochement with Washington that began with the recently-signed interim deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. This could act as a confidence-building measure that may lead to progress toward a conclusive nuclear agreement, which would benefit the entire region.
From Tehran’s perspective, better relations with Washington - which a constructive diplomatic role over Syria would encourage - will further isolate Israel in its desire for military action against Iran.
An invitation may also provide a chance for long-time regional rivals and powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran to work together to find a solution for Syria. This would finally put into action the statements by both countries since Rowhani’s election that they seek better bilateral relations. Improving those ties would contribute to dampening sectarianism, which is sadly rampant in much of the Middle East.
As such, Tehran’s participation may be in the interests of Syria, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the region as a whole - indeed any country or party with a stake in the conflict. If the talks fail anyway, then nothing is lost - the status quo would simply be maintained. Inviting Iran would be a bitter pill for its opponents, but it should be swallowed - Tehran plays too central a role in the conflict, and in the wider Middle East, to be ignored.
That assumes, however, that the conference even takes place. The major factions of Syria’s political and armed opposition have either announced their refusal to participate, or are under strong pressure to do so. Even if Geneva II does happen, there is no sign that it will overcome the usual and fundamental sticking point: the opposition’s insistence that talks lead to Assad’s removal, and his refusal to step down.
In any case, the conference must be inclusive, and although its stated focus is the conflict in Syria - as important as that is - in reality it has ramifications for the entire region and beyond. As the old saying goes, we negotiate with our enemies, not our friends. The hope is that those enemies may one day become friends - there is certainly too many of the former in the Middle East.
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