Zarif Messages to the US on Syria in Munich

by Farideh Farhi

The meeting between Javad Zarif and John Kerry on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 2 was reportedly mostly focused on nuclear negotiations. But this didn’t prevent a “senior US official” from telling reporters that Kerry also tried to bring in Syria.

According to this anonymous official, “Secretary Kerry raised his concerns about the delay in moving chemical weapons to the port in Latakia, and the humanitarian situation on the ground specifically in the besieged areas.” Iran was also urged “to show a willingness to play a constructive role in bringing an end to the conflict.”

Alas, again according to the US official, when Kerry raised the issue, Zarif indicated that he was not authorized to discuss Syria.

This is an interesting plant devoid of any context for the reader regarding why Zarif might not want to talk about Syria with Kerry. To be sure, Steven Erlanger of the New York Times did offer one line of context: Zarif apparently declined to participate in this conversation because “Iran’s policy on Syria is not controlled by the Foreign Ministry.”

Conveniently forgotten is Kerry’s condescension on Jan. 6 that Iran could “contribute from the sidelines… to help the process.” The spectacle of Iran’s invitation and then dis-invitation by Ban Ki-moon to Geneva II under pressure from the same Secretary of State is not mentioned either.

Even those who may be unfamiliar with Iranian politics will be able to discern that Zarif’s refusal had less to do with his lack of authorization to talk Syria policy and more with the decision of the political leadership in Iran, which now includes Zarif, to tell Kerry that he cannot have his cake and eat it too.

Ultimately, this event is telling commentary about the US leadership’s presumption that it can easily engage in public denigration of Iran and then have a closed-door conversation regarding the input Iran can — and should — have in a process that it was barred from participating in publicly.

Let’s be clear, the issue was not Zarif’s lack of authorization per se. The point was that if Iran is called upon to show a “willingness to play a constructive role,” then it should be treated like a stakeholder in the process. Kerry’s predicament was likely caused by a full-blown Saudi freak-out over Iran’s participation. But given the circumstances, there is really no reason for Iran to show understanding of Kerry’s predicament even behind closed doors.

Zarif has as much input in Iran’s Syria policy these days as Kerry does in the US’ Syria policy. The highly fluid dynamics on the ground limits them both; so does input by other institutions, including the military and security establishments, and domestic political actors. The difference lies in the current reality that the US’ Syria policy is confused, conflicted and under pressure while Iran’s is not.

Iran’s support for the Assad regime is odious and yet its long-standing warnings that the attempt to remove Bashar al-Assad will open the path for sectarian extremism and a deepening of the conflict — irrespective of whether the Assad regime or even the Iranian regime have fed extremism and the conflict — have proven correct. Tehran faces little pressure or conflict at home regarding its role in Syria and can rely on Moscow to make sure that Assad does not fall. Lest we forget: it was Russia that prevented UN Security Council resolutions against Assad’s regime. And despite all sorts of reports regarding Iranian arms shipments, technical and intelligence assistance, and even personnel support, Russia remains Assad’s much more consistent and robust arms supplier and supporter.

This is why Zarif reacted to Iran’s dis-invitation to Geneva II with a shrug. An invitation would have been nice and an official acknowledgment of Iran’s role as a key player in the region. It would have also made Iran a stakeholder in the resolution of the Syrian conflict through an internationally guided process. A behind-closed-doors conversation regarding what Iran can do to help, on the other hand, offers nothing.

Meanwhile back in the USA, if this report is correct, even Kerry has lost faith in his administration’s approach to the crisis in Syria. Laments are plenty: Assad is failing to uphold his promises on chemical weapons; Russia is not helpful and continues to supply arms (there is tellingly no reference to Iranian arms and support here); and Geneva II is not working. In the hawkish Senator Lindsey Graham’s rendition, Kerry “openly talked about supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against al Qaeda because it’s a direct threat.”

Graham is likely placing his wishes on Kerry’s tongue. Nevertheless, he stands at one pole pressuring an administration that is well aware of another pressure pole consisting of a general public that wants nothing to do with another mission creep in the Middle East. If the political process doesn’t go anywhere, pressures to do something else are bound to increase.

But as far as the US-Iran dynamic regarding Syria is concerned, the basic issue persists. If Iran is influential in sustaining the Assad regime, then turning it into a stakeholder in the political process makes eminent sense — but not behind closed doors or on a seat in the back of the room.

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Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.



  1. What’s great about this blog, is that people can say what they think. That said, I believe that there are those who will say something that has been given to them, perhaps as a paid item, such as ads that get played when one visits a site. That said, this is what comes to mind when I read your comments CIN, that you’re paid to say what you write, which you don’t seem to research, just do the bidding of the shadow paymaster. So sometimes, 99% of the time, you comments leave a lot to desired. Any feed back?

  2. To Change Iran Now: Iran foreign policy was designed and modified as a response to the American military encirclement from the north, in the old Russian states, the East in Afganistan, the west from Iraq and from the south by the Arab sheikh domes! The Iranian policy has been and continues to be in maintaining its satalite powers such as Syria, Hezbollah in Lebenan, Hamas in Gaza and most recently Iraq, thanks to GWB, encircling state of Isreal militarily. If this too complicated to understand please go back and read about the way Iran is pursuing her foriegn policy.

  3. Syria’s current government is not a “radical Islamic threocracy”. As you are well aware.

  4. So Iran which has never attacked,invaded and occupied another country is the moustache twirling baddy and the US which has repeatedly done all of the above is the peace seeking good guy-it would be funny if it was not so tragic. When the post mentions Russian and Iranian arms supplies why no mention of US and Saudi arms supplies to rebels?

  5. I’m responding as a social worker as well as a citizen. Starving civilians should be everyone’s concern. These civilians have no access to medical treatment and clearly should be suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). These traumatized people have a target on their forehead that says “I’m a terrorist in waiting” because I’m so dissociated from myself and other people. All it takes is a little brainwashing. Iran, Russia and Syria get no respect from the civilized World while civilians are be starved to death!

    Iran hasn’t invaded anyone? They have Hezbollah do it. Iran hostage crisis is more their style – taking unarmed Americans hostage to humiliated the United States and now Iran feels humiliated because we don’t trust them enough to include them in peace talks. Iran was very, very lucky Jimmy Carter was President and not a “hawk.”

    The United States could stay out of it and let the extremists consume each other. The conflicts are bound to expand outward though. If extremists mess with Israel and if Israel has nukes, they will use them if they have to.

    So, the civilized World is in a “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t” get involved in trying to stop the Syrian conflict. Having starving civilians must be a so, so sick Syrian / Middle East strategy – sort of like a reverse of when Iraq put civilians in and around high value targets. Now, the civilian are surrounded in rubble and the World is not allowed to go in and get them out. This is so sickeningly primitive and coming from the “birthplace of civilization” really has a major gag response for me.

    I could be less upset by governments of Iran, Syria, and Russia if they actually negotiate in good faith (trying to get surrounded civilians out) and not be playing games which they are AND if their people were not so brainwashed into extremism. Russian leadership, Putin in particular, are not sophisticated enough to sit on the UN’s Security Council. These countries have no class if they thinks it is okay to allow civilians to starve.

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