It is unlikely that US President Barack Obama will look back on 2013 with much fondness. In the first year of his second administration the plan had been to score early victories on domestic issues such as gun control, immigration and the budget. Obama would then smoothly roll out his legacy-defining medical assistance plan.
Not only did Obama fail on each count, but his administration was beset by a number of unforeseen crises: a government shutdown, the Assad regime’s decision to use chemical weapons in Syria, and severe criticism of the US by its allies in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaking of National Security Agency documents. The calamitous beginning to his medical insurance plan was the final indignity.
November’s diplomatic breakthrough with Iran was an unexpected bright spot in an otherwise grueling year. The coming months will see if Obama can contain strong domestic opposition to a deal on the nuclear issue, but Washington should not lose sight of the wider benefits of a US–Iranian rapprochement. However, these benefits will not come about if Washington fails to internationalize its diplomacy with Iran. Arab (and Israeli) diplomats speak frequently of their suspicion of ‘secret’ dealings between Iran and the US and their sense that Washington is somehow cheating on them. The solution to this problem does not appear to be a strategy dominated by secret back-channel diplomacy, which perpetuates the perception that it is willing to sell out long-term allies at the expense of an ephemeral deal with Tehran. For this reason, America’s veto against Iran’s participation in peace talks aimed at negotiating a ceasefire in Syria is unhelpful. Few countries, and certainly not the US, have the kind of influence Iran has in Syria, and preventing its participation goes against the wishes of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN–Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and the Russians.
Washington’s position is that Iran can participate if it accepts the Geneva I communiqué, agreed in June 2013, which calls for the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority. At the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other participants made statements to the effect that such a body could not include Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Iran’s position is that this is an unrealistic premise from which to begin a negotiated settlement.
In fact, Iran’s position may be closer to Washington’s than US officials are willing to publicly admit. Since the June 2013 talks, Syria has spiraled so far out of control that Obama has been forced into making two major U-turns. First, he rolled back on his threat to launch military strikes after being outmaneuvered by the Russians. Then the threat of a potential Islamist takeover in Syria forced Obama to rethink his previous insistence that Assad had to go—the opposition groups fighting in the north of the country, mainly in the country’s second-largest governorate of Aleppo, are now almost exclusively radical Islamists. The official line may still be that Assad should go, but privately the message to the Syrian National Coalition is that a solution could involve the Syrian dictator. In an astonishing U-turn, there’s even talk of allowing him to stand in a new election.
The conflict in Syria has evolved from a peaceful local protest to an arena where the anxieties of external actors are fought out using different proxies. The result, as noted in a recent Chatham House report, is that “any political solution will likely require an agreement between the external sponsors of the warring factions.” There is almost no possibility that any external power can position their preferred faction into a place of strength. Instead, what is needed is a broader initiative that brings in a wider cross-section of the groups active in Syria. At the same time, even those external powers supporting different sides have some overlapping interests. Iran and the US are a case in point, because both hope to avoid a US intervention or further gains for jihadist fighters. Neither wants the situation in Syria to derail negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and both want an end to the violence.
There are signs that the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is willing to be pragmatic in defending its core interests in Syria. In contrast to the steadfast support offered by hardliners in Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif revealed in a recent interview that his country was not wedded to individuals and would only “stick to the side of stability and resolution.” It is highly unlikely, however, that Iran will acquiesce to Assad’s downfall, but if Western policy has indeed shifted to a position which does not necessarily demand this, then the Rouhani regime can be instrumental—alongside Russia—in brokering a ceasefire. Just this week, several high-level Iranian officials, including Zarif, hosted a delegation from Syria in Tehran.
This doesn’t appear to have been lost on US Secretary of State John Kerry, who last weekend told reporters that Iran could play a helpful role in the resolution of the conflict in Syria. This makes his veto over Iran’s participation in the Geneva II negotiations puzzling. The danger, of course, is that Iran’s involvement could strain Washington’s relations with the Gulf states, many of which are wary that improving US¬–Iranian relations presages dangerously generous concessions for Iran’s nuclear program. It is their anxiety over growing Iranian power that also drives their determination to bring down the Assad regime, Iran’s closest ally.
For this reason, if America wishes to persuade its Gulf allies to stop supporting more radical opposition groups in Syria, it must also build regional support for a diplomatic process that extends beyond the nuclear deal and includes a wide range of security issues in the Gulf. In this endeavor, Washington has at least one ally: Oman, a country that recognizes that ramping down hostility with Iran could bring much-needed stability to the Gulf. Sultan Qaboos, an astute statesman who has managed to maintain good relations with both Iran and the US, has emerged as a key player in both facilitating the negotiations and promoting their value to more skeptical Arab governments.
All of the powers involved in Syria must start to think about how to guarantee post-conflict security. The Rouhani government has stated its desire to build confidence among its neighbors and play a constructive role in the neighborhood. It clearly has leverage in Syria and only good can come from calling them out on this ambition. Much progress has been made in back-channel talks between Iran and the US, and in turn between Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, but this progress will continue to be divisive, and therefore undermined, if it is not backed up by a more regional approach to security issues in the Middle East.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.