Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rouhani’s Lost Chance

ISTANBUL – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive has stalled. It worked well in the United Nations General Assembly last September, when he had something solid to offer – a deal on his country’s nuclear program – raising hopes that Iran’s hardline foreign-policy stance would finally soften. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s withdrawal of Iran’s invitation to the Geneva II conference on Syria suggests that Rouhani will need more than charm – or even a visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Tehran – to end his country’s isolation.

Rouhani has been largely successful in putting his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tone-deaf leadership firmly in the past. The Iranian establishment has supported his attempts to open the country up to its regional neighbors, court foreign investment, call for moderation in religious and cultural matters, and even pursue the nuclear deal with the West.

In fact, the nuclear agreement – which seems close to completion – is likely to be Iran’s most important diplomatic achievement since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, providing it with considerable relief both domestically and internationally. The fact that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally backed the effort makes it all the more promising.

Nonetheless, the regime’s possible rapprochement with the United States remains a source of concern in the Middle East, because it would empower Iran at a time when the US is gradually disengaging from the region. The question now is whether Rouhani’s moderation toward the West will be accompanied by a change in Iran’s Middle East policy, with all eyes on its policy toward Syria.

Ban rescinded Iran’s invitation to Geneva II under pressure from the US and the Syrian opposition. After all, since the civil war began in 2011, Iran has provided essential financial and military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while mobilizing its Lebanese proxy, the powerful Hezbollah militia, to fight against the rebels in Syria.

Whatever concerns the opposition has about Iran’s allegiances, the country is undoubtedly part of the Syrian equation; indeed, its involvement is critical to reaching any accord. But Rouhani’s failure to make a decisive statement on Syria – even after a series of leaked photographs of systematic torture and massacre raised the ire of the international community – has not helped the case for keeping Iran in the fold.

Rouhani recently had an opportunity to discuss Iran’s stance. But, addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, he squandered it, sticking to platitudes about the need for governments in the region to listen to their citizens and provide young people with “jobs and hope.” On the subject of despotic rulers, Rouhani offered only the benign observation that they lack the ability to connect with and understand their people.

Rouhani’s recent rhetoric, however positive, falls far short of the expectations that his diplomacy has raised since his UN address last September. In Davos, the world expected a decisive statement on Syria and other regional problems – not hackneyed nationalist rhetoric about eliminating “biases” against Iran.

Rouhani must have known that his failure to address the humanitarian disaster in Syria would damage his diplomatic strategy, which suggests that he must have had a strong reason. Two possibilities stand out: either there is no consensus within the Iranian elite for a policy change, or the elite remain united in their determination to continue backing Assad. Neither alternative is particularly charming, which would explain why he preferred to obscure his country’s position.

To be sure, Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran this week could help to defuse tensions over Syria – a subject on which Turkey and Iran have diametrically opposing views. But it is unlikely to smooth the divisions among Iran’s elite, much less convince hardliners to stop backing Assad, leaving the visit’s significance uncertain, at best.

In refusing to take a strong position on Syria, Rouhani – like so many other world leaders – is placing his own interests above those of the 2.3 million registered Syrian refugees, the millions more who have been internally displaced, the estimated 130,000 people killed, and the rest of Syria’s long-suffering population. Worse, he has refused to acknowledge Iran’s own role in the tragedy. When he said in Davos, “we cannot be indifferent to the pain and suffering of our fellow brethren in the region,” he might as well have been referring to the Assad regime and its partners in crime.

What Syria needs is not rhetoric or charisma; it needs action. Iran appears incapable of providing it. That is why Rouhani’s charm offensive will not be enough to persuade Iran’s adversaries that the Islamic Republic is ready to come in from the cold.

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    1. Commentedhari naidu

      Aras is exposing his (Turkish) bias against emerging Iran – as he says - from the cold. There is no substance to his delusional claims.

      Turkey (Erdogan), in particular, has a lot to lose in supporting terrorists in Syria, and specially Al Qaeda cells.

      Iran has declared its support for a government of national unity in Syria – to overcome current political impasse. Assad will either remain as an interim head or relinquish power altogether.

      That will depend on Lavrov (Russia) and Kerry (USA). If they can get (all) chemical weapons out of Syria, they can (also) resolve the political impasse by finding ways and means to an interim coalition government and stop the blood bath.

      MSC (Munich) last weekend more or less confirmed displeasure with suspension of Geneva II diplomacy under Brahimi (UNSC) in Montreaux. However it shall resume in Feb with a view to finding a negotiated resolution on an interim government of national unity in Damascus.

      Turkey will be a political loser should some of its covertly financed supporters( against Assad) don’t succeed in joining the process. Erdogan has now domestically pushed Turkey towards an autocratic regime…and he’ll inevitably play a huge political price, from EU perspective.

      Iran, for all practical purposes, has finally emerged on the global political stage under P5+1 and that process will also succeed if all parties are prepared to compromise under NPT safeguards provisions - under IAEA.

      Meanwhile China is opening bilateral trade and investment negotiations with Iran, including energy sector, according to People’s Daily.

    2. CommentedMK Anon

      The author here seems to suggest the blame is on Iran and Assad. This is very biased to me.

      1) Iran wished to be in Geneva, but was NOT invited.

      2) Secondly: The situation in Syrian doesn't need action, but rather a agreement and a process of national reconciliation (as opposed to a new dictatorship that would be anti-chite/allaouite). This process must involve all stakeholders. The real criminals here are those who don't invite all parties involved in the conflict. Geneva conference is deemed to fail because Iran was not there. Rouhani would have "lost a chance" if he was invited and failed to reach agreement. This is not the case

      The US sudden change in position to impede Iran from participating is strange to say the least. Could it be that the US received a call from their "ally" in the region - one who wants to discredit Iran and Rouhani, and seem to acheive it, given the tone of this article.. Would it be that that ally "is placing his own interests above those of the 2.3 million registered Syrian refugees".

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Aras laments that Iran's President Hassan Rouhani had not used his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos to be more critical of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad.
      President Rouhani is indeed wary of his country's ties to Assad's regime and the Western-backed opposition's demand that he step down. So Rouhani said only the Syrian people should determine their future without any influence from outside powers and that ''free and fair elections'' would be the best solution to the crisis. He did say that the West should "pave the way for the opposition to sit around a table with the government".
      As we all know, the Geneva II peace talks ended with no firm agreement. In retrospect, one could argue that it was perhaps a mistake that UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon "rescinded Iran’s invitation" to join the peace talks.
      Yet we have to bear in mind Syria's strategic importance to Iran. Syria is the link between Iran and its ally in Lebanon, the Hezbollah. Iran's Revolutionary Guards help train Assad's elite forces. Yet desite close ties, it is uncertain how much influence Tehran has on Assad and whether it could urge him to step down, a demand that both the opposition in Syria and its allies in the West are adamant about.
      Turkey has long been an opponent to Assad and a staunch supporter of the Syrian rebels. President Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran a few days could have helped "to defuse tensions over Syria – a subject on which Turkey and Iran have diametrically opposing views". Precisely for the very same reason the two countries focused more on bilateral trade, and the Syrian issue became secondary, in order not to spoil the relationship. Turkey needs Iran's energy and wants to access its market, while Iran needs Turkey to circumvent sanctions.