The Fragile Process for Engaging Iran

The diplomatic fracas over inviting and disinviting Iran to the Syrian peace talks only makes sense if you factor in President Obama’s fragile consensus for engaging Iran over its nuclear program while influential neocons keep pressing for confrontation. That mix has made for a messy process on Syria, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The handling of the issue of Iranian participation in the next round of multilateral discussions on the civil war in Syria has been something of an embarrassment, certainly for the United States, the United Nations, and the conglomeration known as the Syrian opposition.

The United States has seemed to be more interested in words rather than in substance in the demands it has been placing on Iran. It finally got its way by strong-arming U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon into withdrawing an invitation he had already extended (while the Iranians simultaneously said they are not interested in participating on the basis of the terms being demanded of them).

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

If this whole episode foreshadows how the conference that this is supposed to be all about is apt to go, the odds of success now appear even longer than they did before.

The U.S. opposition to Iranian participation defies a basic principle of how inclusiveness is related to prospects for success in such multinational endeavors. Or as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has been made to sound like one of the more reasonable people in this affair, put it, “Negotiations involve sitting at the table not just with those you like, but with those whose participation the solution depends on.”

If we suspect someone we don’t like of causing later trouble, the chance of such trouble-making does not lessen by keeping that someone outside the collective diplomatic tent rather than inside it; the opposite is more likely to be true.

The conference is not going to operate according to some voting system in which each possibly contrary vote we can exclude makes it more likely we will get our way. Positive results will require something more like a consensus. If Iran, or anyone else, were to stand in the way of consensus an appropriate response would be at that point to call them to account publicly.

An air of unreality surrounds what has supposedly been the central substantive issue involved: getting “mutual consent” among all involved, including the current Syrian regime, on installation of a new transitional government for Syria. The principal factor that makes that seem unreal is that the Assad regime has not been losing the war lately. That makes the necessary squaring-the-circle trick of getting this regime to negotiate its own demise all the harder to accomplish, if it wasn’t already impossibly hard.

Another factor is the question, which has been increasingly acknowledged of late, of whether the regime’s demise would be all that desirable anyway, given the nature of the fractious and extremist-infested opposition.

The episode has exhibited the general tendency, which appears on other issues as well, to worst-case what Iran might be up to. Why would the Iranians be more likely to get in the way of negotiating the Syrian regime out of existence than the Syrian regime itself would be?

A useful bit of background to remember is that the odd-couple alliance between Iran and Syria began as a response to both being rivals of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which is no longer a factor. Yes, there are some other commonalities, such as economic ties and the relationships of each with Lebanese Hezbollah, but if Assad were on shaky enough ground to make an Assad-less transitional government a reality, his regime would be as much of a liability as an asset to Tehran.

It is hardly surprising that Iran would balk at the sort of conditions being imposed on it to participate in Geneva II. The Iranians are being called on to declare full allegiance to the outcome of an earlier conference from which they were pointedly excluded. Who else would be willing to do that? And if Iran’s assistance to one side in the Syrian civil war is some kind of disqualifier, it is hard to explain why similar conditions are not applied to those who have stoked the war by supplying lethal assistance to the other side.

We are seeing another instance of the urge to isolate and ostracize Iran at every opportunity. Perhaps the Obama administration’s going along with that urge is related to the need to keep on track the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Part of the strategy of bolstering domestic support for those negotiations and to fend off accusations that the administration is being too accommodating toward Tehran is to show toughness toward it on other fronts. That may be a wise approach, given that there is a better opportunity to advance U.S. interests substantially with an Iranian nuclear deal than there appears to be in any management of the Syrian civil war. But in the meantime the resulting diplomacy is not pretty.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)