To resolve the Syria crisis, the US must negotiate with Iran

Commentary: America's refusal to engage with Tehran is misguided

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (pictured) meets with Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Aug. 26, 2013.

As the carnage in Syria becomes steadily more appalling, the peace process begun last year remains effectively frozen. That is largely because of Washington’s refusal to participate in talks that include Iran.

For decades the United States has opposed any project or process in the Middle East that takes Iran’s interests into account. It has refused to consider accords in Iraq or Afghanistan to which Iran would be a party. Now it is doing the same in Syria. The Obama administration’s implicit position on Syria is that although the civil war is awful, a peace that involves accommodating Iran would be worse. Better to keep Syria in flames than to sit down with the mullahs in Tehran.

The Syrian peace process began with a meeting of nine foreign ministers at Geneva in June 2012, representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China — along with Turkey, Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait. Iran was not invited, which was part of the reason the conference made no progress. Since then, there has been much talk of a “Geneva Two” conference. It has been repeatedly postponed because of what diplomats call “questions of procedure” or “disagreements over attendance.” Those are roundabout ways of describing the deadlock. It is this: Russia, backed by China, believes a regional conference is pointless without Iran, while the United States, backed by France, will not sit at a table with Iranians.

American leaders have not publicly declared their policy, but Russian officials have complained about it. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov recently said Washington was blocking the Geneva Two conference over the issue of Iran’s attendance, pointedly adding that excluding Iran from the 2012 conference “was a mistake, and it should not be repeated.”

“This is a matter of principle, because the composition of the conference should be balanced,” Bogdanov said.

Last week the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, telephoned the Iranian foreign minister, told him that Iran’s role in settling regional problems was “constructive and of great importance,” and said Iran would be invited to the Geneva Two conference, when and if it convenes. Whether this constitutes an official invitation, however, remains unclear, and there is no indication that the United States is reconsidering its refusal to engage Iran.

That refusal is rooted largely in emotion stemming from the hostage crisis of 1979-80 and the following decades of semi-covert conflict between Washington and Tehran. Emotion has pushed Washington to adopt doctrine that posits Iran as a strategic enemy, meaning that any security gain for Iran implies an American loss. By that logic, allowing Iran a voice in shaping a peace settlement for Syria — or in any Middle East process — would enhance Iran’s legitimacy and therefore undermine U.S. interests.

The U.S. policy of isolating Iran helps prolong Syria’s agony and feeds instability in the Middle East.

This approach is misguided for several reasons. The clearest is that the United States and Iran, though often rivals, have urgent security interests in common. Both want to calm Iraq and Afghanistan, deal with the Afghan drug trade and fight radical Sunni movements like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Together they could do far more to achieve those goals than either can alone.

Second is the urgency of peacefully resolving the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program. Years of sanctions and threats have produced only more spinning centrifuges in Iran. An earnest diplomatic effort to give Iran an honorable alternative is long overdue.

Third is that no long-term stability in the Middle East is possible without the cooperation of Iran. Look at a map of the region: Iran is the big country right in the middle. Its cultural and political influence has been a dominant fact of regional life for thousands of years. Freezing it out of peace processes almost guarantees that those processes will fail.

Fourth is the larger truth that negotiating with enemies and rivals is a way to promote national interest, not a concession or surrender. Hostility between powers — like the United States and Iran — should be an incentive to negotiate, not a barrier.

The horror now wracking Syria gives the United States yet another reason to try cooperating with Iran. By making an effective peace conference less likely, the U.S. policy of isolating Iran helps prolong Syria’s agony and feeds instability in the Middle East.

By felicitous coincidence, Iranians have just elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who seems open to reconciliation with the West. Inviting Iranian negotiators to a conference on Syria would be a way of testing his good will.

Moderate measures have failed to resolve the Syrian crisis. A more radical option need not be military. Far bolder, and far more likely to lead to a breakthrough toward peace, would be a decision by the United States to accept Iran as a negotiating partner.

For a quarter-century the United States refused all contact with the communist government of China.  “Unfortunately, there are governments or rulers that do not respect the elemental decencies of international conduct so that they can properly be brought into the organized family of nations,” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said in 1954 regarding the United Nations Charter. “That is illustrated by the regime which now rules the China mainland.” The United States has taken the same attitude toward Iran for 34 years.

Civil war in Syria, coupled with the emergence of a relatively moderate new government in Tehran, makes this an ideal time for the United States to reconsider its self-defeating diplomatic boycott of Iran.  Admitting Iran into the Syrian peace process might improve the prospects for a cease-fire.  It could also be the beginning of a thaw in the long-frozen relationship between Washington and Tehran.

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