In a notable about-face in policy, the Obama Administration extended an invitation to Iran to join the next round of consultations on Syria’s future, set to take place in Vienna on Friday. More than a dozen countries are slated to attend, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have all backed President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies in Syria. Previously, the United States and its Arab allies did not want to give Iran a seat at the negotiating table because Tehran has insisted that it will not help facilitate a political transition in Damascus.
During the long lead up to the nuclear negotiations, the President’s supporters would often rhetorically ask, why not talk? What’s the harm of it? But as the talks proved, there are negotiations and then there are negotiations. As was the case then and is now, if we were coming into the talks from a position of strength, inviting Iran would not be disconcerting at all; as it is, this looks like the prelude to an even bigger stand-down. Two signs as to which side thinks it has the upper hand:
The United States made its most public admission that the Assad regime may in fact stay in place for an indeterminate amount of time. “We have very different views, and our coalition partners do, from the Syrian government, the Russians and the Iranians,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice. “But I think there is the potential for an arrangement to be agreed wherein this transition begins, perhaps with Assad still in power, but it doesn’t end with him in power.”
And secondly, though it was not immediately clear whether Iran would in fact attend—the Supreme Leader had earlier this month forbidden all negotiations with the United States outside of the nuclear program—news broke at time of writing that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would be flying to Vienna.
It’s become increasingly clear that the nuclear negotiation, far from taking a dangerous issue off the table so that we could put deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, put the whole region on the table for further negotiations—not just in Iran’s eyes, but in those of the (very frightened) Sunni powers and perhaps the U.S. Administration’s, too.
“Friday obviously will be an important day,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the foreign relations panel, told reporters about the negotiations. “[The Obama Administration is] putting a lot of stock in Friday’s meetings.” We’ll certainly be keeping an eye out too.