When U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday invited Iran to peace talks on Syria, which start in Switzerland on Jan. 22, it was with a nod to sheer practicality. After all, as Syria’s principal regional ally, financial backer and military adviser, Iran doesn’t just wield influence over President Bashar Assad — it is party to the conflict.
But pragmatism has a way of puncturing pride, and instead of bringing all the warring parties to the table, Ban’s gesture almost derailed the entire event. Syria’s main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, threatened, via Twitter, to withdraw from the talks, while France and Saudi Arabia said Iran was not welcome. U.S. officials issued a terse statement. “The invitation must be rescinded,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, unless Iran publicly accepts that the end goal of the conference is the creation of a transitional government in Syria, something Iran has refused to do. “Given the fact that the Iranian government has publicly rejected that demand, the invitation has to be rescinded. Otherwise, we will pull out,” reiterated adviser to the Syrian opposition coalition Oubai Shahbandar, noting that Ban has yet to address the opposition’s concerns. In the end, Iran disinvited itself, saying in a statement relayed by Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. that Iran would not accept any preconditions for its participation. Ban formally rescinded the invitation soon after.
The political storm threatened to undermine months of delicate diplomatic maneuvering as the U.N., the U.S. and Russia, which backs the Syrian regime, seek to bring an end to a three-year conflict that has killed an estimated 130,000 and displaced millions. For the first time, representatives of Assad’s government will sit down with the Western-backed coalition of adversaries determined to overthrow him. On Sunday, Ban told journalists that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had assured him that Iran would play a “positive and constructive” role in the talks, adding that he strongly believed that “Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis.” The opposition coalition holds that Iran is part of the problem, not the solution. “The U.N. and the international community must recognize the malicious role Iran is playing in Syria, one that is enabling the Assad regime’s war crimes. Iran’s occupation of Syrian territory cannot be ratified by their inclusion at the talks given these conditions,” said Shahbandar, by phone from Switzerland.
More than 30 nations, along with representatives of the Arab League, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have been invited to the first day of the conference in Montreux, Switzerland, in a “show of solidarity” with the peace process, according to Ban. On Jan. 24, Syrian government representatives and opposition delegations will relocate to Geneva to begin the talks in earnest. Though none of the foreign parties that have a patronage role in the conflict — such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Russia — will have a seat at the table in Geneva, they are likely to be active on the sidelines, coaxing and chiding their respective parties toward a workable agreement.
The U.S. and its allies, citing the presence of Iranian military personnel and the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi‘ite militia Hizballah, which is fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, argued that Iran never had the right to attend. All the more reason Iran should be there, says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. The Iranians may be supporting Assad with funding and weapons, he points out, but their archrival Saudi Arabia is doing the same with elements of the opposition. “You can’t make peace if you don’t have the warring parties there,” Parsi says. “They have to both be there in order to lead to a durable cease-fire, to end or significantly reduce the fighting.”
Ban’s unexpected invitation to Iran put the Syrian opposition coalition in a precarious situation. Only the day before, more than half of the members either boycotted, abstained or voted against going to the talks, worried that sitting across from Assad’s representatives would compromise their standing among fighting groups determined to topple the government militarily. The fact that Iran had been, at least temporarily, permitted to come, despite not endorsing the goal for government transition, further undermined their standing. “If [Iran] is not part of the conference, nothing will move,” said Mais, a 27-year-old humanitarian worker from the Syrian city of Homs, who asked to use only her first name in order to protect her family. “But the way the U.N. went about it, by inviting Iran after the Syrian opposition had already agreed to attend and putting them in a position where they have to accept Iran’s presence, is really terrible.”
Iran’s presence at the talks, especially if it had been able to nudge Assad to make serious concessions on humanitarian-aid access and cease-fire agreements, would have gone a long way to dismantle the perception that the country is a destabilizing presence in the region. But Iran may not have as much leverage over Assad as many hope. Though largely Sunni, Syria is Iran’s strongest Arab ally, and Shi‘ite Iran fears losing the country to Sunni Saudi Arabian influence should Assad step down or be overthrown. Syria is also a tactical ally — essential for keeping Iranian proxy force Hizballah funded and armed in neighboring Lebanon. So even if frustration with Assad is rife in Tehran, Iran may have found that its hands were tied.
“Here’s the conundrum,” says Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C. “There’s no possibility of a peaceful resolution in Syria as long as Assad remains in power, there’s no diplomatic way to get rid of Assad without Iran, and there’s little chance that Iran will abandon Assad.” The talks may go on, but whether or not they manage to produce anything of substance remains to be seen.
— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut