The good thing is that the United Nations and the United Sates might have ‘won’ and ‘lost’ during the forty-eight hours in the run-up to the Geneva 2 conference scheduled to begin on Wednesday. Seldom has an international peace conference been held under such strange circumstances.
It all began with the surprise invitation extended by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon in the weekend to Iran to attend the conference, disregarding the objection raised by the United States on the ground that Tehran has not voiced explicit support for the June 2012 Communique regarding the Syria, which forms the basis of the forthcoming conference.
Indeed, Ban was exercising his prerogative as the ‘convener’ of the Geneva 2 conference and he claimed that in a series of meetings and telephone conversations in recent days or weeks senior Iranian officials had assured him that Tehran «understood and supported the basis and goal» of the upcoming event on Wednesday, «including the Geneva Communique».
Ban apparently pulled off a diplomatic coup since Iran’s participation altogether transforms the scope of Wednesday’s conference. Prima facie, the invitation to Iran seemed a feather on Ban’s cap, affirming his robust independence of decision-making despite the overt American pressure on him to stay away from Iran. But in reality, it is inconceivable that American diplomats at the UN were unaware of Ban’s consultations with Iranian officials.
At any rate, on Sunday, Ban won on the world stage, but only ‘lose’ on Monday when apparently coming under immense American pressure, he was made to eat the humble pie and rescinded the invitation to Iran. He put the blame on the Iranian doorstep, claiming that Tehran’s response to the invitation was «not at all consistent with [its] stated commitment». Presumably, Ban expected Tehran would meet the US pre-condition, whereas, it refused to blink. Although it accepted Ban’s invitation and hinted it would take part in the conference, it announced the next day that it won’t take part, after all, «given the US insistence to set a precondition» – although, as Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian explained on Tuesday, Tehran has made clear its readiness to be involved without pre-conditions. It was vintage Iranian response.
Meanwhile, Washington, which ‘lost’ when Ban extended the invitation to Iran, ‘won’ within a day with the secretary-general’s retraction in the face of the open demand by it that he should do so unless Tehran «fully and publicly» voiced support for the 2012 road map in Syria.
The mystique of diplomacy is that sometimes what is won could turn out to be Pyrrhic victory. Has the US won a Pyrrhic victory? The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was spot on when he expressed strong indignation at what has happened. Lavrov said on Monday, «Forty countries have been invited to the Geneva 2 talks. Among the countries invited are Australia, Mexico, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and many others. And if Iran is excluded from the list then the conference will resemble something profane.
«Iran, of course, along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, is one of the countries interested in resolving the situation without further damaging the stability of this important region of the world».
Clearly, Iran’s participation would have phenomenally transformed the ABC of the Geneva 2 conference. But then, Washington had one eye on the Syrian National Coalition [SNC] while demanding Ban to rescind, because the motley crowd of Syrian opposition was threatening to wriggle out of attending the Geneva 2 conference using Iran’s participation as alibi. Washington had made Herculean efforts through recent weeks to get the SNC on board. But the Obama administration would also be of the sensitivities of Saudi Arabia over Iran’s participation in Geneva 2.
The Obama administration is taking care to sequester the US’ engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue from the squabble over the list of invitees to Geneva 2. In fact, it hailed on Monday Iran’s suspension of high-level uranium enrichment in the weekend as providing an «unprecedented opportunity». Within hours, of Iranian scientists cutting the links feeding centrifuges in the Natanz plant and at Fordow underground site near Tehran in the presence of IAEA inspectors, the European Union announced moves to ease sanctions against Iran. In sum, as the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization Ali Akbar Salehi put it, «The iceberg of sanctions against Iran is melting».
As the summer months arrive and the melting of the sanctions iceberg accelerates, Tehran stands to gain. Unsurprisingly, it will not make an issue of Ban’s curious retraction over the invitation to Geneva 2. Again, Tehran would estimate that ultimately, it has a crucial role to play in any Syrian peace process and the US would learn to live with it.
Doesn’t Washington realize that Iran is a key player on the Syrian turf? Of course, it does. Nonetheless, it would seek to deal with the Geneva 2 process with Russia as its primary interlocutor at this stage rather than having to face ‘Russia plus Iran’. Put differently, the US would like to avoid any co-relation developing between the Geneva 2 process and the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran as such (where it doesn’t want a third-party role, either.) The two processes must run on separate tracks. Suffice to say, selective engagement of Russia and Iran would be what the Obama administration prefers so that Washington’s diplomacy could be optimal. To be sure, the growing Russian-Iranian strategic understanding impacts the American calculus.
But then, this is also the predicament arising out of the difficulties that arise in the US having to deal with multiple issues at the same time with Iran. If Tehran would have hoped that its ‘more-cooperative’ and ‘more-forthcoming’ attitude in the nuclear negotiations so far may produce gains on other issues (such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on) – or vice versa – that isn’t happening – at least, not yet.
An unnamed «senior US official» was extensively quoted by the American media on Monday as insisting that the negotiations on Syria and Iran’s nuclear program are separate and that Washington still has concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism and its «efforts to destabilize Lebanon, Bahrain and other countries in the region».
So, how does the ‘score card’ look just as the Geneva 2 gets under way, finally? Paradoxically, now that the US ‘won’ the foreplay to keep out Iran, pressure builds up on it to ‘deliver’ as the peace process struggles to take off. The Geneva 2 cannot be allowed to flounder just like that.
Certainly, failure won’t look good for the UN’s standing, either. Most certainly, the SNC had its way regarding Iran, but it cannot hope to dictate terms all the time – especially when it sits down facing the Syrian government delegation across the table.
In the domestic opinion in the US, too, the Obama cannot afford a stark failure at Wednesday’s conference, given the constant sniping at his Syria policies. Something needs to be salvaged.
Conceivably, Russia may just have ‘won’ its battle to get a peace process going at all on Syria.