Iran won't be at Syria talks. So what?

As a key backer of the Syrian regime, Iran may have leverage over President Assad that few parties can claim. But the UN has revoked its invitation to the Syria peace talks this week.

By , Staff writer

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    United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrives for the conference on Disarmament at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Mr. Ban revoked his invitation to Iran to participate in the Syria talks in Switzerland.
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Twenty-four hours of diplomatic chaos on the eve of peace talks on Syria has sparked a furious outcry from Iran, which claims that its involvement in negotiations is essential for a resolution. 

Yesterday United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon revoked his invitation to Iran to participate in the talks in Switzerland, less than a day after issuing it on promises that Iran would play a “positive and constructive role” in ending Syria’s three-year conflict. 

The revocation elicited relief in Washington and among opposition groups that had vowed not to attend in the presence of Iran, Syria's military ally. But it provoked surprise in Iran at the exclusion of such a key player, when all others engaged in this regional proxy war were invited to the table. 

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“Who in their right mind will leave the destiny of the Syrian people – an important country in the strategic region of the Middle East – in the hands of terrorists?” said Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign affairs advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, using the Syrian regime and its allies' terminology.  

Iran has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Along with the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which it arms, Iran provides extensive military support, personnel, and cash that has enabled Mr. Assad to survive a popular uprising that morphed into a civil war. As a staunch supporter of the beleaguered Syrian leader, the Islamic Republic may have the leverage to require the regime to compromise.

Mr. Ban has argued that all key players must work together to end the Syrian conflict. But Iran's invite was only to attend the first day of talks on Wednesday, a show of support for peace by foreign ministers from some 40 countries in Montreux. The real negotiations between "Syrian parties," the UN says, will begin on Friday in Geneva. 

Iran could be influential in the outcome in Syria, by perhaps convincing Assad not to run in elections later this year – a scenario that Assad this week said had a "substantial" chance of happening – or trying to broker a mutually acceptable replacement, says a Tehran-based analyst who asked not to be named.

"Iranian and Syrian ties so far have been based on common interests, not friendship between Assad and Iran," says the analyst. Syria has been the geographical linchpin of an "Axis of Resistance," connecting Iran to Hezbollah, as well as to the Arab world and to Israel's northern borders. But while Syria is essential to that connection, Assad is not.

"Convincing Assad is part of what Iran can do," he said. "The post-Assad regime, whatever it is, can [still] have a close relationship with Iran, because of common threats and interests." 

Tangled diplomacy

Ban’s decision came after angry pressure from the US and a threat from the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group to boycott the talks if Iran was not disinvited. Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar and Turkey, are primary backers of the rebels seeking to topple Mr. Assad and will be at the opening session. 

The criterion for attending these “Geneva II” Syria talks, according to the US and UN, is acceptance of a June 2012 communique agreed at the “Geneva I” meeting that lays out a transitional authority without Assad himself.

When he issued Iran’s invite, Ban said that he and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers.” When he rescinded the invitation, Ban said Iran had reneged on a “stated commitment” and “has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding.” 

Today Mr. Zarif said Iran regretted Ban’s decision, which “is not appropriate for the prestige of the secretary general,” and that he told the UN chief “explicitly that we don’t accept any preconditions for participating."

Ban “not having the courage” to explain the withdrawal of the invite was “more regrettable” than revoking the invite itself, he said, according to Iranian media.

That said, Russia, as well as the Syrian regime's representatives, will be at the negotiating table despite their opposition to such an outcome. And Russia was among the supporters of the Geneva I communique and incorporated it in a unanimous UN Security Council resolution, though it has shown little inclination to ditch Assad. 

The first day of the talks should be open to “all countries, without any exclusion, that influence the situation on the ground,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday. Mr. Lavrov said that with such a disparate array of countries invited, from Mexico and South Korea to Japan, Brazil and India – as well as nearly all regional players – “if there is not Iran in this list, then I think the peace talks will resemble a hypocrisy.”

Guaranteed failure without Iran?

Iranian lawmaker Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini called Ban’s decision “a shameful act in the history of the United Nations.” Why was the UN chief, he asked, “under pressure from [rebel] criminal and terrorist groups and [Islamist] Salafi and Takfiri movements that behead innocent people?” 

Although not represented at the talks, the ranks of those fighting the regime have expanded to include foreign jihadist groups, some linked to Al Qaeda.

“Accepting the Geneva I agreement means legitimizing terrorists supported by the Zionist regime and oppressive and benighted governments,” said Mr. Velayati, the advisor to Khamenei, in an interview with the conservative Tabnak website.

From Iran's perspective, a possible silver lining, conservative lawmaker Ali Jalilian suggested today, was that differences between the regime and the rebels were too great for a solution. 

“If Iran had attended they would have attributed this failure to Iran’s presence. Therefore our absence is to our benefit and will prove that they can’t progress without Iran’s participation,” Mr. Jalilian told parliament.

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