by Thomas W. Lippman
At multiple conferences in Washington this month, participants have engaged in long, thoughtful discussions of the multiple crises in the Middle East and what perils there will await the next president of the United States.
The list was sadly familiar, with Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya at the top. Some panelists urged more robust U.S. action now, including military intervention. Others argued that such action would only make matters worse. But if a crude consensus emerged, it seemed to be that no workable strategies can be devised, and no viable solutions reached, without some form of working agreement between the United States and Iran.
It would not have to be a formal or even a declared arrangement. Iran is not ready for that, and in the environment of a presidential campaign the United States is probably not ready either. But there is no realistic way to bring the conflicts in the Middle East under control and stabilize the region unless Washington and Tehran are willing at least to talk to each other, respect each other’s positions, and seek to identify common interests as a basis for action.
Choice for Iran
Is that in the cards? Perhaps, perhaps not. Some analysts agree with Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a scholar from the United Arab Emirates, who at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference that Iran will never be flexible because it is “an imperialistic, sectarian state.” He said that “no one in the region today is in the mood for regional cooperation.”
Others took a more nuanced, and therefore more optimistic, view. Payman Mohseni of Harvard’s Belfer Center said at the same gathering that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif see Iran’s nuclear deal with the United States and its negotiating partners as “a model for future interaction with the world and the United States. It would have implications for the future of U.S.-Iran working relations and also de-escalate the regional cold war of Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
Noting the recent intransigent statements of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other hard-liners who consider themselves guardians of the Islamic Republic’s anti-American principles, he said those are “not definitive policy statements…It’s a negotiating stance.” He said “Iran sees itself as standing up to the biggest bully. The rhetoric could stay the same but there could be gradual progress.”
“There may well be no immediate prospects for broader improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations, and Washington must never make such improvements in relations at the expense of its allies. At the same time, the nuclear agreement has shown that Iran does have a more moderatepresident and many other senior officials,” Anthony Cordesman wrote in a paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A large portion of the Iranian people clearly do not see the United States as the ‘great Satan,’ and a number of Iranian officials and security experts do realize that Iran’s real strategic interests lie in regional cooperation and dealing with the growing threat of religious extremism.”
Iran is a major player in the devastating civil war in Yemen, where it is backing Shiite rebels known as Houthis against a Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia. It is also a powerful force in Iraq, where it stepped into the power vacuum created by the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. But the key test of the moment is its role in the multilateral effort to stop the carnage in Syria.
Syria has been Iran’s only Arab ally since the 1980s, and Tehran appears determined to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. His hard-pressed army has been reinforced by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and by Shiite militias based in Syria and Iraq, all supported by Iran. The United States and Saudi Arabia insist that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future. If Tehran and Washington cannot be brought to some accommodation, perhaps mediated by Russia, it is hard to envision a way out of the Syrian morass.
Getting to Yes in Vienna
Over the weekend, while most attention was focused on the terrorist attacks in Paris, representatives of 17 countries—including the United States, Russia, and Iran—as well as the United Nations, the Arab League, and the European Union, met in Vienna to grope for a solution in Syria. In a laboriously worded communiqué, they stated their “commitment to ensure a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition,” without specifying whether the arrangements to result from that transition could include Assad. The group called for a ceasefire “to come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps toward the transition under UN auspices” in accordance with a previous communiqué issued in Geneva in 2012. The participants said that they agreed “on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices, as soon as possible with a target date of January 1.”
Who would represent the opposition? UN Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura “and others” will endeavor to “bring together the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition, chosen by Syrians, who will decide their negotiating representatives and define their negotiating positions, so as to enable the negotiating process to begin.” The document did not mention Assad or any particular opposition group, but specified that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), its allies, and “other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council” are excluded from the negotiations and from the proposed ceasefire and “must be defeated.”
That exclusion, some analysts said, could render the entire process meaningless because it ensures that the war in Syria will continue in one form or another, even if other parties agree on transition negotiations.
Iran took the position afterward that the reference to a transition process did not mean that Assad would be required to go. “The Islamic Republic of Iran did not allow this issue to be included in the final statement,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, told state media on Sunday. “We emphasized that only the people of Syria have the right to decide on this matter.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Iranian diplomat added: “We stressed unequivocally that only Assad himself can decide on his participation or non-participation in the elections and [that] it is only the people of Syria who can say whether they will vote for him or not.” That position cannot be reconciled with the determination of the United States and Saudi Arabia to accept only some process that removes Assad as the leader of Syria.
The Role of Russia
Secretary of State John Kerry chose to be optimistic, or as optimistic as possible in the dismal landscape of Syria diplomacy. “What we have now is a real, genuine process with possibilities,” he said. “Four weeks ago we didn’t have that. I mean, as little as four weeks ago, there was no political process that was viable until we came together in Vienna, found the common agreement on principles, established a concept of giving life to a negotiation, with Iran and Russia at the table, which is unique in the last four and a half years.” He said that “very significantly, every party there embraced a ceasefire…so we’re weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria.”
It is true that “every party there” includes Iran. But it does not include the Assad government or its most important military ally, Hezbollah. Conceivably Iran could deliver them, but Kerry’s vision will not be fulfilled if it doesn’t.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meeting reporters with Kerry, said that “We all want to stop violence in Syria and the majority of delegations today were for an immediate ceasefire; but unfortunately, not all of them were prepared for that.” He did not specify which participants were not on board, but presumably Iran was among them. If so, that will present a test for Russia, an ally of Assad, because all parties to the communiqué agreed to use whatever influence they have with the parties to the conflict to bring about a ceasefire.
Lavrov said that Russia, an ally of Assad, agreed with Kerry’s position on the desired outcome of this process: “a Syrian-led transition process within a target of six months that will: establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance; set a schedule and a process for drafting a new constitution; and determine eligibility for voting and candidacy in elections. We also agreed that free and fair elections would then be held, pursuant to the new constitution, within 18 months. These elections, we believe, would take place—not we believe—we agreed would take place under UN supervision with an emphasis on transparency and accountability, and with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.”
Even assuming that the convoluted process approved in Vienna is implemented, however, it would not resolve all the issues for which the United States and its ally Saudi Arabia would need some semblance of Iranian cooperation. The war in Yemen goes on, as does the struggle for influence in Iraq.