Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrives at the UN General Assembly this week in the context of a new convergence in Russia-Iran ties on Syria and the prospect of a new chapter in US-Iran relations.
There are good reasons for the United States to be skeptical and vigilant in dealing with Russia and Iran on Syria or anything else. There are also good reasons to seize a potentially historic opportunity. The successful implementation of the US-Russia chemical weapons framework, the convening of the Geneva II conference on Syria and progress in talks over Iran’s nuclear programs, which are all in play, would be among the most significant foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration, with implications well beyond Syria.
The Russian-Iranian trend has so far been a constructive one for the United States on Syria. On Friday, Sept. 13, Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and had a long and “detailed” talk on Syria. Rouhani welcomed Russian support in addressing Iran’s nuclear file and invited Putin to visit Iran. The next day, US and Russian negotiators in Geneva agreed on a framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. A UN Security Council resolution is being drafted to implement and enforce this agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif endorsed the US-Russia framework on Sept. 15, adding that Iran was willing to engage the United States to build confidence, as Ali Hashem reported from Tehran for Al-Monitor.
Rouhani wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Sept. 20 that Iran is ready “to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition” while “strongly” condemning chemical weapons use. On Sept. 21, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported that it had received the “expected disclosure” from the Syrian government, which is the first step required to implement the agreement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi will meet in New York this week to discuss the Geneva II conference. .
Even Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a skeptic on Iran, has acknowledged the “new music” since Rouhani took office, while calling for Iran’s deeds to match its words, as Ben Caspit reports from Israel.
True, words are only words and it is deeds that matter. Even in the context of potentially historic gestures, including a possible Obama-Rouhani meeting over a luncheon sponsored by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday, as Laura Rozen reports, there is an urgency for concrete proposals and getting beyond the atmospherics. Diplomacy, especially with Iran, where there are three decades of deep hostility over Iran’s support for terrorism and Hezbollah, as well as its WMD and missile programs, requires a process, not just a series of statements and gestures.
The United States and Iran are putting each other to the test. Rouhani became president on Aug. 4, less than two months ago. He was not elected to cave in to US positions but to engage the United States and other countries to reduce tensions in support of Iran’s interests.
The United States should therefore not expect Iran (as well as Russia) to either ditch its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, at least not yet, or to agree to steps on its nuclear programs and get nothing in return.
On Syria. the fast track for a political solution depends on implementing the chemical weapons agreement and convening the Geneva II conference as soon as possible. Geneva II will not happen without the support of Russia and Iran. This is where Russian and Iranian actions can be held accountable. Only then can discussions of a political transition possibly gain traction. Last year we wrote of the possibility of a “Syria Medvedev” to replace Assad as a result of US diplomacy with Russia and Iran, and that “The endgame in Syria will be elections [scheduled for 2014], which can only take place after a cease-fire. The cease-fire, if it is to happen, will need to be negotiated with Assad or whoever he designates.”
The consequences of imposing preconditions on Geneva II serves only to delay the conference and prolong the war, meaning more deaths, more refugees, and more terrorism, as we are seeing in Iraq and Lebanon.
On the nuclear front, the window for initial, substantial progress is just as urgent. Rouhani might say that he too needs concrete actions, not just words or mood music. If Iran offers a proposal which directly addresses some of the outstanding issues on its nuclear file, he will expect Obama to reciprocate with an offer of some sanctions relief, and a path toward lifting US and UN sanctions on Iran. Another sanctions bill could deliver a possibly crippling blow to Rouhani’s policies of engagement.
While Obama can waive many sanctions via executive order, as Kenneth Katzman wrote for Al-Monitor, his administration needs something tangible to make the case to Congress to hold off another sanctions bill.
New York Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor last month that he was skeptical about Rouhani’s ability to deliver on his promise of moderation. Engel expected the Senate to pass the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, which passed the House of Representatives, 400-20, and includes further sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors.
Turkey would benefit from pivoting toward backing the trend toward a resolution in Syria and away from policies which risk escalation. Semih Idiz writes that the Syria “nightmare” is going from bad to worse as the Turkish parliament considers a renewal of authorization for Turkey to respond to threats outside its borders. The Turkish military shot down a Syrian helicopter over its airspace last week, and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups set up camp on its borders. Kadri Gursel adds that the US-Russia agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons, for example, is a benefit for Turkey, which could have been a target of these weapons, as this column warned in December 2012. Turkey and the region would gain immensely from its playing its rightful role as a bridge for diplomacy and conflict resolution, not as a partisan, in the Syria war.