Can Obama make a grand bargain with Iran over Syria?

(By Shahram Akbarzadeh)

The last round of talks to bring some relief to the humanitarian disaster in Syria achieved remarkable nothing. The anti-Assad delegation traded barbed insults with the Syrian government delegation and all left the meeting with the reaffirmed conviction that the other side cannot be trusted. But something peculiar happened on the side of the talks. A minor PR episode that holds significant potential for the geo-politics of the Middle East.

Speaking in Israel a few days before the Geneva II talks on Syria, the US Secretary of States John Kerry suggested that Iran may have a role to play in the talks. It is hard to know if this was a thought-through proposition or an impromptu thought-bubble. Kerry is gaining a reputation for the latter, ala the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons to avert US military action. The suggestion that Iran could be involved in Syria talks caused a major backlash and the idea was promptly withdrawn.

This episode was quickly superseded in the media reports by the fast moving pace of the crisis. But it did signal a tentative yet tectonic shift in the regional power balance. The prospects of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran has the potential to rewrite regional alignments. The talks on Iran’s nuclear program is a case in point. Under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Iran has made a bold move to break out of its self-imposed isolation. Rouhani was elected with a mandate to free Iran of the crippling sanctions and negotiate on Iran’s nuclear program. His electoral message that the turning of the centrifuge should not come at expense of people’s livelihood stroke a cord. To date, talks have progressed well and Iran has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment to 20% in return for the easing of some sanctions. The Iranian Foreign Minister has shaken hands with the US State Secretary to seal the deal. This achievement is of course reversible. Nonetheless it is a remarkable departure from the pattern of animosity that had come to characterise US-Iran relations.

Kerry’s suggestion that Iran could play a role in the international efforts to address the deadlock in Syria is grounded in two key assumptions. It is an acknowledgement that Iran has a stake in Syria and, more importantly, that Iran could work constructively with the West. These are contested assumptions of course, especially the latter. Critics of US-Iran rapprochement dismiss the notion that Rouhani is genuine about repairing relations with the United States and Iran’s neighbours and accuse him of being a wolf in sheep’s skin – a rouge to ease sanctions. It may be too early to pass judgement on Rouhani’s intentions and his ability to bring such radical change, given the nature of the Iranian regime. But his government has suggested that Iran is not wedded to Bashar al-Assad and this is big news, just as big as the advances in nuclear talks.

Iran’s position on Syria has been complicated and for Iran to really play a constructive role, certain concerns need to be ticked off. Syria has been Iran’s only state ally in the Middle East. Given Syria’s shared border with Lebanon and history of conflict with Israel, this alliance has served Iran’s Islamic revolutionary agenda. The benefits have been geostrategic and symbolic. It has facilitated contact and shipment of arms and expertise to Hizbullah and Hamas and has highlighted Iran’s commitment to the Palestinian cause by siding and sponsoring anti-Israel forces. The alliance with Assad has been an important strategy to advance Iran’s anti-Israel and anti-US image. That revolutionary image put Arab leaders to shame among their own subjects for failing their Palestinian brothers and allowing Israel to continue occupying Arab land. Abandoning Assad is tantamount to abandoning everything else that this alliance offered Iran. How can Iran turn its back on Assad?

Two key issues may help make sense of the new Iranian position. The Syrian civil war has descended into sectarian warfare. This is a dangerous turn that has spilled across the region and brought death and destruction on Muslims by the hands of other Muslims. The Sunni Islamist groups portray the conflict in terms of jihad against the Shia and the Alawites and are supported in that claim by Wahhabi clerics. The civil war in Syria resembles a proxy war where Iran’s military support for the Assad regime is presented as a Shia campaign against the Sunni population. In turn Saudi and other Arab Sheikhdoms’ support for the rebels is presented as holy war against the Shia. This sort of blatant sectarianism and the not-so-hidden conflict with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sheikhdoms does not serve Iran. Traditionally, Iran has claimed to represent all Muslims, hoping to transcend the sectarian divide. This approach is even more important to the Rouhani government as he has taken a much more conciliatory approach to Iran’s neighbouring states.

And this brings us to the second point. Rouhani has done very well to re-set Iran’s relations with the United States and would be keen to extend an olive branch to its own region. This is very much in line with his efforts to repair some of the damage done to Iran’s international standing under his predecessor. He is conscious that open hostility and antagonism towards Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will put US-Iran rapprochement at risk. Indeed, how can the two mend fences if Iran continues to threaten Saudi interests? Improving Iran’s regional standing and building confidence, therefore, are parts of a bigger picture. In that picture, Iran stands as a benign power, recognised for its contribution to civilization and regional stability. The reality, however, is far removed from that idealised picture and Rouhani’s government has a way to go towards it. Unfortunately for him, the challenges are not all external.

Iran’s new approach has an obvious Achilles’ heel. Iran’s history of anti-Americanism, held closely by sections of society and most importantly by more than a few leading clerics, put obvious hurdles in front of Rouhani. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reserves the final say. So far President Rouhani has managed to keep him on side. For Iran to play a constructive role in Syria, ie. stop supporting Bashar al Assad, the Iranian leadership needs to be convinced that such move will advance its cause. The prize needs to exceed the price. What Iran gets from the international community in relation to Syria needs to be worth losing a friend and jeopardising the link to Hizbullah. This maybe a bridge too far. But it is remarkable that the Iranian leadership is contemplating it.

Shahram Akbarzadeh is Professor of Middle East and Central Asian Politics at Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. He is author with Kylie Baxter of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: The Roots of Anti-Americanism

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Bloomberg reports “Obama: France, U.S. United on Iran Sanctions, Syria”

14 Responses

  1. “It is hard to know if this was a thought-through proposition or an impromptu thought-bubble. Kerry is gaining a reputation for the latter, ala the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons to avert US military action.”

    facepalm

    It has long since been made public that negotiations for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian chemical warfare crisis had been going on for weeks when Kerry floated the idea publicly.

    When a Secretary of State or Foreign Minister of a major world power floats a proposal to the press, it’s probably not a good idea to assume that he’s shooting his mouth off and that no spade work is being done on the proposal.

    • Still, pretty hard to determine if it was a typical Kerry gaffe or a face-saving attempt to allow the Russians to take the lead after Obama reversed course from lobbing cruise missiles to taking it to Congress for a vote, which he surely would have lost.

      • Since the diplomatic effort to “allow the Russians to take the lead” in disarming their client state at our behest predated Kerry’s statement by several weeks, it seems fairly unlikely that Kerry’s statement making our demands public was a gaffe, or that it was a response to something (going to Congress) that happened after the effort began.

        I do like the notion of “face-saving,” though. Yes, the accomplishment of one’s primary foreign policy goal during the crisis, above and beyond even the most optimistic scenarios, would tend to “save face.”

        But there’s still a piece you’re missing, Bill. In the midst of a diplomatic process that needed time to come to fruition, the administration suddenly delays things and sends the issue to Congress – a Congress renowned for wasting time and accomplishing nothing – even while declaring that it wouldn’t be bound by Congress’s decision. The last time the administration sent something like this to Congress, during the Libya operation, Congress responded by wasting time and taking no action. This time, they wasted some time and didn’t get around to taking action, as the diplomatic track wound its way to success.

        And so, in short, going to Congress was an incomprehensible blunder.

        • If you really think Obama reversed course from threatening cruise missile strikes to suddenly taking the issue to Congress for a vote was all done deliberately to give the “diplomatic” track more time, I’ve still got some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you, sight unseen.

          Obama’s dithering and indecisiveness is what led the Russians to insert themselves and take the lead. The Russians pulled off what Obama’s “Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight” could not. Red Lines and lots of talk.

  2. “Traditionally, Iran has claimed to represent all Muslims, hoping to transcend the sectarian divide.” With Shia comprising less than 15% of Muslims, it makes perfect sense to avoid a sectarian war, a war that, if numbers matter, the Iranians cannot win.

  3. “Traditionally, Iran has claimed to represent all Muslims, hoping to transcend the sectarian divide.” With Shia comprising less than 15% of Muslims, it makes perfect sense to avoid a sectarian war, a war that, if numbers matter, the Iranians cannot win. For the same reason, it makes perfect sense for the Iranians to keep Israel’s Sunni neighbors focused on their common enemy, Israel.

  4. Self-imposed isolation? In an otherwise excellent essay, this stands out as a ridiculous description of the US-led sanctions regime.

      • How so? Iran has been under sanctions and an enforced war instigated against her since 1979.
        Before 1979 Iran was a kosher oil carrier for international (western colonist) hoards and all was lovey dovey.

  5. Iran continues to build a ring of supporters in Iraq , Syria, Lebanon and Egypt built on cooperation with terror groups and dictators that massacre their own people. The future of any peace deal in Syria cannot have Iran involved if there is any hope for a future without terror, human rights violence and the imposition of yet another radical Islamic religious theocracy.

    • Change Iran Now wrote:

      “Iran continues to build a ring of supporters in Iraq , Syria, Lebanon and Egypt built on cooperation with terror groups and dictators that massacre their own people. The future of any peace deal in Syria cannot have Iran involved if there is any hope for a future without terror, human rights violence and the imposition of yet another radical Islamic religious theocracy.”

      Your post repeats Israeli propaganda:

      Erection of a “ring of supporters” is a garden variety effort at containment and balancing the power of a very dangerous, self-declared enemy of Iran, Israel. It is also an irregular counter-offensive against European colonialists. What more justifications might be required?

      The familiar “terror groups and dictators” epithets has no more operational significance than did “Hun” and “Bosch” during WW I or “The War on Terror” today. Israel has a terrible human rights record and its supporters understandably wish to detract attention from it.

      “Massacring their own people” isn’t one whit different from massacring neighbors and occupied people. So what’s the purpose?

      The claim that “The future of any peace deal in Syria cannot have Iran involved….” is both baseless and counter-intuitive unless it is meant to be deceptive. Iran has national interests in the region. If she can not serve them by entering into an agreement, one is hard put to explain why she should bother. You neither address that fact nor do you acknowledge that the powers working on a settlement with Israel’s enemies despite her constant obstructionism have their own interests in this matter. They differ from what Zionists think are theirs.

      A cooperative Iran can only bring “….. terror, human rights violence and the imposition of yet another radical Islamic religious theocracy.” But a hostile, isolated, bomb-building and sanctioned Iran will be somehow better for all concerned? Would that nostrum apply to Israel, a heavily religious colonial ethnocracy?

      Your post contains the indicia of current Israeli propaganda and Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to shift attention from what he is doing in the West Bank to Iran.

    • It is because of Iran’s efforts to boost the Assad regime, in order to bolster its regional power, that Iran’s cooperation in necessary to get to a peace deal. Iran needs to knock that off, and work to push the Syrian government to deal, in order for there to be any chance of success.

      We always make peace with our enemies. That’s why it’s called “making peace.”

  6. joe from Lowell 2014.02.14 11:56

    “It is because of Iran’s efforts to boost the Assad regime, in order to bolster its regional power, that Iran’s cooperation in necessary to get to a peace deal. Iran needs to knock that off, and work to push the Syrian government to deal, in order for there to be any chance of success.”

    Was not Iran supporting both the Assad regime and Hezbollah too?

    Doesn’t telling Iran to stop supporting Assad mean also that the two of them must stop supporting Hezbollah? That’s a bit of a hard one.

    In whose interest would this be? Are all the necessary parties involved in both of these negotiations?

    I know we were talking to Hezbollah indirectly via the British last November and December. It would seem inefficient at best for them not to be in this loop.

    By the way, the indirect negotiations with Hezbollah were necessary because of American legislation preventing direct negotiations with designated “terrorists”. Could AIPAC have drafted that legislation as an aid to our hard working Congress? If so why do we let such things happen instead of enforcing FARA?

    We always make peace with our enemies. That’s why it’s called “making peace.”

    Of course, but is Hezbollah a part of either set of negotiations? Isn’t sorting that out necessary? How is peace to be made on the Palestinian/Israeli track without all these issues being dealt with simultaneously under one umbrella?

    • I see the Syrian problem as but a part of an overall crisis and believe that it should be dealt with in its entirety, not piecemeal.

      To quote myself:

      “In whose interest would omitting Iran, Hezbollah (the P.A.) and Hamas from the negotiations be?”

      And then: “Are all the necessary parties involved in both of these negotiations?”

      I’ve got a bit of a conflict here, and I’d like to avoid this professional conceit, but those who have looked at it systematically know that the Anglo-American common law system is the greatest monument to common sense ever compiled. It is so vast that it is hard to find significant situations not yet addressed and built upon. And when an *experienced* practitioner comes upon a set of facts unique to him, intuition often leads correctly to a solution once he opens the books and consults the authorities. I operate below simply by analogy, but I think it is elegant and very powerful.

      The Hamas and Hezbollah resistance movements and the more domesticated authorities on the West Bank obviously have stakes in the outcome in the region and in Syria particularly, and the way in which the overall problem is resolved will be incomplete and probably useless if they and Iran are excluded from the process.

      The courts have encountered so many analogous situations and have resolved them in light of simple justice and pragmatism that the rules generated long ago by judges have been codified. They are found in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, rules 18 and 19 on “joinder”. Of particular pertinence is the material on “compulsory joinder” in FRCP, Rule 19.

      There are many reasons why the legal system requires every interested party to be before the court if it is at all feasible. First, they want the results at trial to be final. What could be more important to the interminable conflict in the Middle East? The key to finality is that the results to comport with justice and law. This is often impossible when interested parties are denied access.

      I believe it obvious that in terms of finality in the practical sense this principle should be applied rigorously.

      The Israelis hate the idea. They are in the business of labeling individuals and movements on the theory that justice delayed is justice denied. All the significant participants should be parties to the negotiations and others permitted some sort of observer status so their input is factored in. To get it right it’s going to have to be comprehensive and perhaps more complex than than it was at Versailles after WW I. It can be done and done right. It’s just not going to be easy but the process has begun.

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