Argument

Two Left Feet

Can Washington dance with Tehran when they're listening to different music?

If President Barack Obama's administration sought to prove that successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran would not improve U.S.-Iranian relations in other areas, the recent diplomatic fiasco over Syria marks a job well done. On the very same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was implementing the nuclear interim agreement, Washington successfully pressured the United Nations to rescind its invitation for Tehran to attend the peace talks on Syria based in Montreux, Switzerland.

The peace talks on Wednesday, Jan. 22, with both sides exchanging bitter recriminations, and accusing the other of responsibility for the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians in this conflict. But the diplomatic process stumbled even before the talks began, as what first appeared to be a diplomatic coup for the United Nations ended up an embarrassing farce.

It all began on Jan. 19, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had invited Iran to the Geneva talks after officials in Tehran had pledged to play "a positive and constructive role." The secretary-general does not generally take bold steps without Washington's consent, so his announcement implied that the United States had dropped its opposition to Iran's participation and that Tehran had agreed to the communiqué of the first Geneva conference -- declaring that the goal of the conference is the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But instead of a breakthrough, Ban's outreach almost brought about the collapse of the entire diplomatic dance around Syria. It turned out there was not enough coordination with either Washington or Tehran: The Syrian opposition, backed by Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, quickly responded to the invitation by threatening to boycott the conference. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the invitation to be rescinded, while a U.S. official told the media that Kerry was "furious" with Ban for the surprise invitation.

On top of that, Tehran declared that it had actually never accepted the first Geneva communiqué, which was the American precondition for partaking in the conference in the first place. The farce climaxed a few hours later, when Ban caved and rescinded Iran's invitation -- even though Tehran had already announced that it was declining to attend.

To hear Iranian officials tell it, they never implied that they were willing to change their stance on Syria. A high-level Iranian source told me that Tehran had repeatedly made it clear in conversations with Ban, starting on Jan. 17, that it would not accept any preconditions for attending Geneva II. Tehran, the official wrote in an email, was particularly mindful of the fact that the United Nations had "invited those who support terrorist organizations on UN list and US [terror] list [sic] without precondition."

U.N. officials, however, see it differently. A senior U.N. diplomat told me that Iran had not been clear about the Geneva I communiqué, which had led to the misunderstanding regarding Iran's position on the Geneva principles. Nevertheless, U.N. officials still maintain that Iran, President Bashar al-Assad's primary ally, is needed at Geneva for the peace talks to succeed.

But rescinding an invitation is not an act befitting a U.N. secretary-general. Former E.U. High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana did not mince words about the debacle, taking to Twitter to accuse the United Nations of showing "a lack of professionalism" for having unnecessarily withdrawn Iran's invitation.

But the rescinding of Iran's invitation sent a strong signal. Any notion -- in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Tehran -- that the United States is shifting its alliances in the Middle East has quickly been dispelled. There is no Tehran tilt -- at least not now.

Perhaps this was the reason for Washington's insistence on Iran's invitation being rescinded: The United States wanted to dispel any suspicion that its nuclear diplomacy with Iran has caused it to lean toward Tehran's position on regional matters. Such a belief, after all, could generate even more ferocious Arab opposition to the already-fragile nuclear talks.

This issue goes to the core of the dilemma behind the United States' and Iran's diplomatic dance. While both countries share numerous common interests, they differ on the speed and public visibility of this thaw.

U.S.-Iranian cooperation could reap many benefits for both parties -- including on Syria. U.S. officials privately say that Washington's focus has shifted from seeking Assad's ouster to the more limited initial goal of ending the violence, which means Tehran's collaboration is needed more than ever before. Both Washington and Tehran wish to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state, as they fear that such a scenario would strengthen al Qaeda -- perhaps even leading to the jihadist groups seizing control of some of Assad's chemical weapons.

But Washington wants to proceed slowly. U.S. officials in the executive branch want deliberations to take place behind the scenes, far away from the eyes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and opponents on Capitol Hill, who all are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of ending the 34-year-old U.S.-Iranian enmity.

Progress, these U.S. officials hope, will be achieved with little fanfare. In fact, occasional public humiliation of Iran can come in handy to calm those panicking about a world where the United States and Iran are no longer at each other's throats.Why

Tehran, in turn, wants a lesser thaw in relations -- but it wants it faster. Iranian officials are not looking for a partnership with the United States, and they are certainly not looking to compete with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey for the position of America's most valuable regional ally. At best, a senior Iranian official told me, U.S.-Iranian relations will resemble U.S.-Russian ties: A rivalry, but one that nevertheless includes -- or perhaps tolerates -- both tactical and strategic cooperation in numerous areas.

But within that rivalry, Tehran needs Washington. It cannot completely break out of its isolation without Washington's compliance. It needs U.S. assistance to reverse the onslaught of sectarianism throughout the region, and to contain the threat from al Qaeda.

But Iran wants the spillover effects of the progress on the nuclear issue to come faster, and wants Washington to provide it with public recognition of its seat at the regional decision-making table. In short, it wants fanfare: For Tehran, being seen as part of the solution is a big part of the solution to the region's woes.

This is precisely why Monday's diplomatic circus is so problematic for Tehran. The instantaneous outrage at Iran's invitation brought to the fore the remarkable decline of Tehran's standing in some quarters of the Arab world. It remains to be seen if it will also impact President Hassan Rouhani's standing domestically. It is an undeniable blow to his efforts to improve relations with key Arab neighbors if Syrian opposition groups threaten to abandon their seat at the peace talks if Iran has one.

Iran could, of course, shrug off this setback. It could retreat to its narrative of resistance, and celebrate how it stood its ground and refused to succumb to any preconditions. But for Iranian-Arab relations to deteriorate at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations are improving highlights the depth of Tehran's regional discord. And it contradicts Iran's own discourse, which fingers American meddling as the cause of Iran's tensions with its Arab neighbors.

But this is not just a setback for Tehran. Whatever details of the story prove true, the reality is that this diplomatic fiasco has been a confidence-eroding exercise for all parties involved. The Geneva conference may have been salvaged by ensuring the participation of the Syrian opposition, but there is now less confidence that it can amount to anything. Washington may have patched up relations with the Syrian opposition -- but with positive results in Syria less likely, support for U.S. regional leadership will further weaken.

And most importantly, for the Syrian people, an end to the gruesome fighting appears ever more distant. Neither the opposition nor Assad's forces have the strength to defeat the other. Yet the fighting continues, leaving thousands more dead solely to uphold an unsatisfactory stalemate. However, absent external support to the fighting parties -- primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran -- the resources for war would quickly dry up. That's precisely why a peace conference without both foreign powers behind this uprising-turned-proxy war is likely to go nowhere.

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

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