Could rapprochement with Iran be the real story behind the Syrian story?

By J Brooks Spector 23 September 2013

Following the surprise agreement on the Syrian chemical weapons, the possibility of a better relationship between the US and Iran comes tantalizingly into view. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at this tangled, yet hopeful, set of circumstances.

Many years ago, one of this writer’s early mentors as a diplomat was a man who had fallen in love with Iran. He was fascinated by an ancient history juxtaposed with a youthful population struggling with the wave of westernization and oil wealth washing over the country, even as a revival of religious fervour was creeping in as a growing counter-influence. Ultimately, he was so enamoured with the country he married an Iranian woman who seemed to exemplify all these contradictory impulses in one. One thing he said back then has stayed with me for nearly three decades: one day the Iranians will achieve their deepest desire, re-establishing their place as a great power in the world and holding international respect worthy of that status.

In recent months, certainly in Washington (and perhaps in much of the world as a whole) any focus on Iran has been obscured by Syria, despite a whole desk’s worth of troubles between the US and Iran. There have been the vast agonies of Syria’s civil war, the use of chemical weapons against civilians in that unhappy country, and then, most recently, a growing international fear the US would launch a punishment strike against the Assad government for using those chemical weapons. By contrast, Iran’s own circumstances vis-à-vis the US had slipped out of focus. That is, until earlier this week.

As the opening day of the 2013 session of the United Nations General Assembly looms just ahead, together with all those traditional speeches by many of the world’s leaders (and some behind-the-scenes meetings among many of them), Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, and the Obama administration have begun a long-distance dance. It is still too tentative to be a courtship, but already too close to be just a momentary flirt. But it is already far too important to leave to the vagaries of chance. And, given some slight movement in the relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there is even the possibility of a positive result there as well. All of this – Iran, Syria, Israel/Palestine – would have seemed just about impossible a few months earlier.

As the AP reported over the weekend, “President Barack Obama arrives at the United Nations on Monday with diplomatic openings, the result of help from unexpected partners, on three fronts: Iran, Syria, and elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians. All three pathways are fraught with potential pitfalls and hinge on cooperation from often-unreliable nations. Obama also risks being branded as naive and misguided if the efforts fail, particularly in Syria, where he’s used the prospect of diplomacy to put off a military strike in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. Still, the recent developments mark a significant shift on a trio of issues that have long proved problematic for Obama at the United Nations … ‘He said we’d be open to diplomacy, we’d pursue engagement, but that there would be pressure if Iran failed to take that opportunity,’ said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.”

The AP went on to note, “Aides say Obama will address developments on Iran, Syria and Middle East peace in his speech to the U.N. on Tuesday. The issues will also be at the forefront of some of the president’s bilateral meetings with world leaders, including a sit-down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, whose country is burdened by the flow of refugees from neighbouring Syria. But Obama’s most closely watched meeting may end up being with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. No encounter is scheduled, but U.S. officials have left open the possibility the two men might talk on the sidelines […] the first meeting of U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years. A meeting could […] be a precursor to renewed talks on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

For Syria, after weeks of uncertainty and acrimony over the chemical weapons deployment of 21 August, events seem to be moving rapidly. After the US-Russian agreement was inked in Geneva, the Syrian government actually produced a listing of chemical weapons facilities and weapons storage that seemed to be in accord with the agreement.

As that had happened, the BBC reported, “The international chemical weapons watchdog says it has received ‘the expected’ account by Syria of its chemical arms programme. The announcement by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) comes before a deadline set for Damascus as part of a Russia-US deal. Syria is believed to have about 1,000 tonnes of chemical toxins. Its entire chemical weapons arsenal is meant to be dismantled by the middle of next year under the terms of the deal. ‘We can confirm that we have received the expected disclosure from the Syrian government regarding its chemical weapons programme,’ the OPCW said.”

Following that, the action now shifts to the UN. Here the US (along with the French and British) now sees a role for the Security Council to guide – and referee – the demolition of Syria’s chemical weapons, asking for a resolution that would make the US-Russian agreement legally binding in a way that would be verifiable and enforceable.

Still up in the air, however, is whether any such resolution will be put into place under Chapter 7 of the world body’s charter. That section deals with threats to international peace and includes provisions for enforcement by military and non-military measures (such as sanctions). However, at this point at least the Russians still appear certain to veto a resolution that would mandate military action. How to get beyond this particular stumbling block will almost certainly be the subject of major diplomatic negotiations and manoeuvring in the weeks ahead, but there is no clear pathway yet visible in this regard. That said, the next checkpoint comes up soon enough with the agreement calling for inspectors to verify the chemical weapons by the end of November.

As far as the Israeli-Palestinian standoff is concerned, there has actually been some tenuous progress recently. Direct talks have actually been restarted after some serious poking and prodding by secretary of state John Kerry over the past several months. Prospects for agreement on the long list of issues dividing the two sides are still nowhere near visible to even the most optimistic. Nevertheless, the talks are not dead.

In recent years, Palestinian leaders, reacting to the on-going stalemate, have begun to use the UN as a lever for their side. While the Palestinian cause for full statehood has gained overwhelming support among members, producing some very lopsided votes in favour of that proposition, the US position has been that it will only be achieved successfully via direct negotiations with the Israelis. As a result, the Obama administration is in the awkward position of supporting the cause of Palestinian statehood in theory, but arguing against full membership in the UN until the Palestinians can sort it out properly with the Israelis. Nevertheless, while at the UN Obama is expected to have direct talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

But Iran is the big one. To put it mildly, the US and Iran have had a difficult relationship, at best, since the last years of the Carter administration when the Shah’s pro-American, authoritarian monarchy collapsed. The relationship augured downward from that point, what with the embassy hostage-taking and the failed rescue attempt, the quasi-clandestine US support for Iraq in the decade-long Iraqi/Iranian war and then years of acrimony over apparent Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear missile capability, its fierce antagonism towards Israel and its stalwart support of Shiite fundamentalist militias like Hezbollah.

After years of overheated rhetoric from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad directed at the US, this year, in the person of Hasan Rouhani, Iran has a new president who is making friendly overtures toward Obama. This has included the prospect of a meeting (although not yet formally scheduled), while both men are at the United Nations for the opening sessions of the General Assembly.

Joel Rubin, a former State Department official who now works at the non-proliferation organization Ploughshares, has said of such encounters, “You never know when it’s going to break.” Rubin added Obama faces a test, however, of how to judge properly if opportunities such as these can morph into something big, or just become a big stall. Of course the Obama administration argues now that this sudden spurt of progress comes from the President’s predilection for using diplomacy (paired with pressures generated from economic sanctions and the threat of more military-style action) to achieve his overall goals.

In this regard, the White House’s deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, argues that on Iran, “He said we’d be open to diplomacy, we’d pursue engagement, but that there would be pressure if Iran failed to take that opportunity.” And on Syria, that threat of a punishment strike “opened the door for this diplomacy”. In seeming response, Rouhani issued a statement that said, “In these talks all the rights of Iran, including nuclear and enrichment rights on our own territory should be accepted within the framework of international law.” No mention of the power of sanctions to do their work in Rouhani’s comments, of course.

If Obama and Rouhani do actually meet at the UN, it would be the first time such a meeting has taken place in over three decades. Beyond an exchange of pleasantries, such a meeting could eventually lead to renewed talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, and that could eventually lead to the big payoff: a settlement on that question. Of course, at this point at least, there are major differences between Iran’s assertion of its right to enrich uranium and keep its stockpiles of such fissile materials, and getting to an agreement on this question has frustrated the West for more than a decade.

Nonetheless, Rouhani’s election as president seems to have been a signal by many Iranian voters of their displeasure with their nation’s international isolation and the effect Western sanctions have had on their lives and on their country. Pursuing this careful courtship, Obama and Rouhani have already traded letters, and Rouhani’s rhetoric has been far less acrid towards the US than his predecessor.

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, says, like Obama, Iran’s president shares a need to prove to a domestic constituency that diplomacy can garner concrete results. Parsi goes on to caution, however, “If he can’t show that his diplomatic approach will pay more dividends for Iran that Ahmadinejad’s theatrics, then it’s back to the conservatives being in the driver’s seat. And the flexibility that Rouhani currently has will be lost.” Thus there is at least a theoretical incentive for both men and both nations to find some common ground, and that is the ground that sometimes gives rise to diplomatic breakthroughs.

Not surprisingly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps cautioned in their statement about the possibility of such a meeting and negotiations thereafter, “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and sceptically monitor the behaviour of White House officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favour interaction.” The 125,000-strong IRGC has a military budget that is said to dwarf that of the regular armed forces. Its top commanders are handpicked by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s theocratic leader, but its clout also derives from former members who have occupied positions of influence in business, parliament and across provincial government.

Nevertheless, the IRGC has said it would support initiatives, in line with the national interest as defined by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even Khamenei seemed to give his endorsement to Rouhani’s opening to begin talks with the United States, saying he agreed with Rouhani’s “heroic flexibility”.

And here it may helpful to recall that sense of Iran the writer’s friend understood so deeply – that it was a society eager, desperate even, to be recognized for its rightful place on the world stage as a nation with a rich, ancient heritage that matters and has gained the regard of a nation like the United States. Like Aretha Franklin, it wants a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Contemplating the Obama administration’s diplomatic play so far, The Economist has judged Obama fairly harshly in terms of both his playmaking and its execution, arguing, “It is hard to find anyone outside the White House who admires the way the president has handled the crisis. But some are prepared to extend a little understanding. For two years Mr Obama was harangued by hawks and humanitarians for not acting. Then, when a blatant and horrific chemical-weapons attack on 21 August made him change his mind, he found that American support for military action in Syria was much weaker than it had previously appeared.” But maybe, from all of that, one can say he has made the best of an initially botched play.

And so these three interrelated developments give rise to a sports metaphor.

Without stretching things too far, it is important to recall that Obama’s favourite game has always been basketball. In high school and in those many pickup games while he taught at the University of Chicago, he often played point guard for mixed teams of students and young instructors. Point guard is the playmaker position. He’s the man who quickly shifts from defence to offense and back again, who can increase the chances of success in a play with an adroit head fake. And in the same way, if he’s very lucky he can change the rhythm of the game in the Middle East, turning an initially sloppy run of plays over Syria into a whole new winning pattern. Maybe. DM

For more, read:

  • What It’s Like to Play Basketball With Obama, at the Huffington Post
  • For Obama, diplomatic openings on 3 fronts, at the AP
  • Syria chemical weapons data received, by OPCW
  • Iran’s elite military warns of dangers of dealing with U.S, at Reuters
  • An unlikely band of brothers, in the Economist
  • It may not look like it, but Barack Obama’s presidency is tied to Syria, in the Economist
  • President Rouhani Comes to Town, in the New York Times
  • Mother Nature and the Middle Class, a column on Iranian and Egyptian demographic and geographic challenges by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times
  • Timeline on Iran’s Nuclear Program, at the New York Times
  • A brief history of US-Iranian relations, in the AP
  • A summary of long-strained US-Iranian relations, in the AP
  • US, Iran talk nicely, but nuke progress uncertain, in the AP
  • US-Russia Syria deal props up Assad, in the AP

Photo: Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost



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