Why Washington Should Welcome Iran Mediation on Syria

Why Washington Should Welcome Iran Mediation on Syria

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This week marked another grim milestone in Syria’s ongoing civil war when the death toll topped 100,000. But as hopes for a peaceful resolution fade, a window of opportunity may have opened with the election of Iran’s new moderate leader, the cleric Hassan Rowhani.

The question is whether the United States is willing to go that route.

On June 22, under the banner of “Friends of Syria-London 11,” 11 Western and West-leaning Arab states met to discuss future steps in helping the Syrian uprising, which has now entered its third year. The delegates announced measures to augment humanitarian aid and raise the level of military assistance. Simultaneously the London 11 conferees discussed Geneva II, a U.N.-brokered international peace conference envisaged to settle the conflict “politically.”

The conference, originally scheduled for June, was later pushed to July, with reports of another postponement likely. A major sticking point is the list of participants for Geneva II. While the majority of international delegates will most likely come from countries sympathetic to the rebel forces fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Russia and China insist that Iran be included on that list.

Washington has so far scoffed at that request, simultaneously moving to arm rebel fighters in Syria after U.S. officials announced earlier this month they had conclusive evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.

The Syrian regime, however, is not without its supporters. Apart from its two larger patrons in Moscow and Beijing, Assad also draws support from Iraq’s volunteer Shiite combatants and the Lebanese fighters of Hezbollah, which have taken on an increasingly high-profile role in the conflict. For his part, President Putin is committed to sell the Syrian government game changing SS 300 anti-aircraft missiles, a development Israel considers to be a “red line.”

With the international community at a loss in its search for common ground on Syria’s tragic crisis, circumstances in Iran, which has large stakes and far reaching influence in the region, suggest a potential opening.

On June 14, voters in Iran turned out in large numbers to elect Rowhani, the lone moderate candidate who in his campaign promised to reverse many of the more hardline policies of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has expressed a desire to improve long-strained ties with Washington.

Rowhani’s intent for reform, his popularity and the widespread desire for change in Iran provide the new leader with a unique opportunity to contribute positively to the Syrian crisis and to Iran’s relations with the West.

And despite doubts about the limited power of Iran’s president – the office is subordinate to that of the nation’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i -- several analysts argue Khamene’i may be less able to control a popularly elected figure like Rowhani. Others contend Khamene’i would not have allowed Rowhani to be elected in the first place if he were not inclined to approve the new leader’s moderate approach.

Involving Iran in diplomacy on Syria should not be considered out of the ordinary. While Israel has expressed doubts about the potential for change in Tehran, European leaders have been more positive. In a recent policy shift, French President Francois Holland “welcomed” the newly elected president of Iran to be a participant in Geneva II. Regrettably, however, Holland expects Iran to stop supporting Damascus to qualify for international mediation, a condition Tehran is unlikely to accept.

Still, the Islamic Republic’s interest in Syria’s survival as a state, its strong desire to end the debilitating sanctions imposed on it by the West and Tehran’s affinity with the Syrian regime puts it in a good position to contribute to such mediation. Treating Tehran as a partner in peace making could also help facilitate the creation of a representative, reliable and viable transitional Syrian government and the early departure of Hezbollah fighters from the battlefield.

Looking ahead, a deal with Iran on Syria promises a potentially groundbreaking resolution to other related sources of conflict: Tehran’s nuclear program, Lebanon’s descent into chaos and the U.S. quagmire in Afghanistan among them.

In other words, it is possible that Syria could serve as a gateway to a larger diplomatic Iranian bargain with the West.

U.S. Ambassador William Green Miller, an expert on Iran whose experience in dealings with Tehran goes back to 1959, is unreservedly hopeful about such potential. “I am of the view,” he wrote in a recent op-ed, “that the next year or so will present the best opportunity for the United States and Iran to settle differences and dispel mutual distrust between our countries through serious negotiations.”

Let’s hope those in Washington share his enthusiasm.

Ghassan Rubeiz is a social scientist, political commentator and the former secretary of the Middle East for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.