Many nations attending the Geneva II conference, including the United States, appear to have been completely caught off guard by a recent hastily organized news conference and announcement issued by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Just a day after the controversial announcement, the United Nations withdrew its invitation to the Islamic Republic of Iran to attend the much-anticipated Syria peace conference. This withdrawal came under intense pressure from the Syrian National Coalition, the U.S. State Department, other countries in attendance at the Geneva II conference.
Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran (and its reversal a day after), is an astonishing move because it marks a significant diplomatic embarrassment for the U.N. and for countries like Russia, which insisted that Iran should participate in the Syrian peace negotiations.
An attempt to increase influence
Iran has long been attempting to enter the Geneva II conference, either publicly or behind the scenes, without endorsing the Geneva communiqué. There are several reasons for the nation’s concerted efforts.
Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran (and its reversal a day after), is an astonishing move because it marks a significant diplomatic embarrassment for the U.N. and for countries like RussiaDr. Majid Rafizadeh
First of all, the Iranian leaders would like Tehran to be seen as a major regional power and an indispensable player in resolving geopolitical, strategic, and economic Middle Eastern issues. Their engagement and involvement in the Geneva II conference would grant them this image, tipping the regional balance of power towards Tehran.
Secondly, Iran’s participation in Geneva II or any other negotiations regarding the Syrian crisis, would work to significantly strengthen Assad’s political position.
Thirdly, and more fundamentally, involvement in the Geneva II conference would have ratcheted up the leverage of the Iranian leader on the issue of nuclear negotiations with the West. Iran would have utilized the Geneva II conference as a platform to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the P5+1, and to project its regional power and influence. This would lessen Iran’s need to compromise, turning the Islamic Republic into a dominant player in potentially turning the interim nuclear deal to a comprehensive final one.
Iran is desperately attempting to depart from the regional isolation it has found itself in for many years because of its regional hegemonic ambitions, nuclear program, involvement in other Arab countries like Bahrain and Yemen, its influence in Hezbollah, as well as international sanctions and pressures.
Iranian leaders designed a classic political trap for the U.N. Secretary General, which reveals their true intentions.
Behind the scenes, as Ban Ki-moon pointed out, Iranian leaders promised to comply with the basic grounds of the June 30, 2012 Geneva Communiqué. These efforts were implemented in order to compel the U.N. and the Secretary General to invite Iran to the Geneva conference.
On Sunday, Ban reported that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country supported the ground rules of the negotiations. According to Ban, “He [Zarif] has assured me that, like all the other countries invited to the opening day discussions in Montreux, Iran understands that the basis of the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June, 2012, Geneva communiqué.”
He added, “Foreign Minister Zarif and I agreed that the goal of the negotiations is to establish by mutual consent a transitional governing body with full executive powers… It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux.”
No public endorsement
But what were the real intentions? In classic Machiavellian strategy, Iranian leaders did not publicly (or explicitly) endorse the Geneva communiqué, or state their position towards the Assad regime. Even further, in public statements made on Monday, Iranian officials pointed out that Iran had been invited with no pre-conditions attached.
The Iranian state news media quoted a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Tehran as saying, “We have always rejected any precondition for attending the Geneva II meeting on Syria.”
This statement tremendously embarrassed the UN Secretary General, who seemed to be unfamiliar with Tehran’s apparent political discrepancies both in public and behind the scenes.
Repeatedly, Iran’s position on the Assad regime and its covert and public military and economic assistance to the Syrian government has become the epitome of the Iranian leader’s double standards in the region. While Iranian leaders issue particular statements in public, they carry out totally differently strategies and tactics behind the scenes when it comes to backing the Alawite state of Assad.
Not endorsing the Geneva communiqué
The question of whether Iran should attend the Geneva II conference is a critical one. Nevertheless, if some preconditions are not imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if some ultimatum is not specified for Tehran’s unconditional military, economic, advisory, intelligence, and political support of the Assad regime, Tehran’s official involvement will be detrimental to the prospect of reaching a resolution to the three year long Syrian conflict that has resulted in more than 130,000 deaths (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) and the flow of millions of refuges to neighboring countries.
Iranian leaders recently came out and publicly announced that they will not endorse the fundamental element of the Geneva II Conference that aims to establish a transitional government in Syria with full executive power.
In addition, Iran’s Quds forces, its Revolutionary Guards officers are an integral part of the Syrian regime forces. Iran has been successful in persuading Hezbollah to send its fighters into Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime.
Considering all the aforementioned key factors, and taking into consideration Iran’s disagreement with the ground rules of the Geneva Communiqué, inviting Iran to any negotiations regarding Syria, will only add an extra backer of the Assad regime. This will hinder the political resolution and further embolden Assad to not compromise at any cost.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.