Zarif presses diplomacy on Syria

Article Summary
Iran brokers humanitarian cease-fires in Syria; Yair Lapid discusses “dreadful gamble” in US-Israel relations; Turkey’s Stone Age temple may predate Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids by thousands of years.

Iran takes initiative in regional security

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed an Iranian peace plan for Syria in visits last week to regional capitals, including Damascus, where he met with President Bashar al-Assad, and Beirut, where he met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Ali Hashem writes that Zarif’s meetings have been focused on preparing a revised four-point plan for a political transition in Syria in the context of a new diplomatic opening to address regional security. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told Hashem that Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi had proposed, and the emir of Qatar endorsed, a meeting between Iran and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which may take place as soon as next month. The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran’s diplomatic flurry had already led to humanitarian truces between the Syrian government and Ahrar al-Sham opposition forces in suburbs around Damascus.

Zarif’s assertiveness in regional diplomacy appears linked to the agreement between Iran and the world powers on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Hashem observes that “with a deal in hand, Iran’s Middle East policy appears to be going through some changes.”

Kayhan Barzegar writes that: “the implementation of the JCPOA will give Iran new potential to play its regional role, also providing space within domestic Iranian politics for the assumption of a more active and balanced posture toward the region.”

Hashem cautions that Zarif’s efforts are likely to be challenged by hard-liners in Tehran and critics in the US and the region of any diplomacy with Iran. “Some politicians in Tehran suggest that Zarif’s quest to handle Middle East policy his own way won’t be easy. They believe that given the regional circumstances, it will be hard to craft a new approach. And with Zarif bent on forging ahead with his own style, some internal controversy is certain. However, Zarif has already jumped to the forefront by publishing articles, adopting savvier discourse and trying not to mix revolutionary manners with acts of state. For example, many were surprised that Zarif did not visit the tomb of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s slain military commander, as he has done previously. Of note, Hezbollah said the Iranian foreign minister’s tight schedule prevented him from making the trip, though no Iranian official has missed the stop since 2008, when Mughniyeh was assassinated. Despite all this, some critics cast doubt over Iran’s seriousness about a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. They believe Tehran is buying time to secure more gains on the ground, and that its only aim is to preserve Assad's rule.”

Mohammad Ali Shabani dismisses the argument that Zarif’s diplomatic push should be a surprise, or that Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have command of the regional accounts. “A key argument of those brushing off the utility of regional collaboration with Iran is that Middle East policy falls under the purview of the Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and not the Foreign Ministry. While this has been the case in past years, domestic and international developments — including the JCPOA — are changing dynamics. Iranian sources have repeatedly conveyed to Al-Monitor that Tehran’s four-point plans for Yemen and Syria are not solely the work of the Foreign Ministry, but the result of coordination with the Quds Force."

Shabani wrote that if there were doubts about the extent of Zarif’s portfolio, US Secretary of State John Kerry on July 31 told The Atlantic, Zarif specifically said to me … 'If we get this [JCPOA] finished, I am now empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues.'”

Laura Rozen, who broke the story on the back channel US diplomacy with Iran led by former US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, writes that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had approved of the secret talks in 2011, two years before the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. 

Anne Barnard of The New York Times reported Aug. 11 that “Russian and Iranian officials suggest that Saudi Arabia, the United States and allies like Turkey are coming to realize that fighting terrorism is more important than ousting Mr. Assad, though Mr. Jubeir [Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir] insisted after his meeting with Mr. Lavrov [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov] that “there is no place for Assad in the future of Syria.” 

Despite the tough stance on Assad, there may be signs of a shift, or at least a reconsideration, of some aspects of the kingdom’s position on Syria. A Syrian official told Jean Aziz in Damascus that “the path of the Saudi-Russian negotiations [on Syria] has completely changed.” If Iran has indeed engaged with Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group, in brokering the cease-fires around Damascus, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, it is probable that Saudi Arabia may have facilitated or, at a minimum, sanctioned such contacts.

As we wrote here last month, “Al-Monitor's first Week in Review, in December 2012, noted that Iran was essential to either a diplomatic solution or continued conflict across the region’s fault lines. In September 2014, one year into the talks, we wrote that the negotiations with Iran were facilitating a tentative trend toward the “emergence of what may be a truly regional counterterrorism coalition, with potential for a transformation in regional security, if managed carefully.” 

Israel’s Sancho Panza?

Akiva Eldar reports on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu’s lobbying of a visiting US congressional delegation, and the complications that the Iran deal has caused Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog: “It’s hard to find an international agreement in which all sides got everything they wanted. Iran is not a weakened and downtrodden Palestinian organization that 22 years ago signed an agreement that did not include even a day’s freeze of construction in the settlements that are the focal point of the conflict. Netanyahu was never interested in a compromise with Iran, nor with the Palestinians. He wants to bring them to their knees. Netanyahu does not want to reach an understanding with President Barack Obama. He wants to defeat him. If Herzog wants to differentiate himself from Netanyahu, he has to stop going on about the 'bad agreement' and reconcile himself to the fact that the alternative to this agreement is worse. A Sancho Panza type who carries Netanyahu’s water in the war against the world is not an alternative to his bad government.”

In an exclusive interview with Mazal Mualem, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid explains how he believes Netanyahu has mishandled US-Israel relations: “The question is what will be the degree of cooperation between Israel and the United States. The Americans have a very limited attention span for us right now. We have to restore their attention span and it’s possible. I don’t know whether Netanyahu is the right person to do so. From the moment Netanyahu took sides in the American elections and gambled on [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney, something was damaged that hasn’t been repaired since. It wasn’t even connected to the Iranians. It was a dreadful gamble that also didn’t read America correctly. Out of all the things I’ve said about Netanyahu, what angered him the most was that I said that he no longer knows America, because it has changed.”

Turkey’s Stone Age Temple

Tulay Cetingulec reports this week on Turkey’s efforts to have the ruins of a Stone Age temple in Gobeklitepe, which may predate “Stonehenge by 7,000 years, the Egyptian pyramids by 7,500 years and the first Mesopotamian cities by 5,500 years,” listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as part of Al-Monitor’s series this month on the Middle East’s cultural heritage.

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Found in: yair lapid, mohammad javad zarif, hassan rouhani, hassan nasrallah, culture, benjamin netanyahu, bashar al-assad, ali khamenei
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