When the much-delayed Syrian peace conference known as Geneva II starts in Montreux, Switzerland, on January 22, before moving across the lake to Geneva on January 24, everyone will be there.
Apart from Syria’s government and opposition, the Geneva II guest list includes representatives of the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, Algeria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
Everyone? No, one state is missing: Iran—and the Iranians aren’t happy about it.
“Iran is determined to settle the crisis in Syria, and no one can resolve this crisis without Iran’s help,” complained Mansour Haqiqatpour, vice chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.
The Iranian government has repeatedly made clear its interest in going to Geneva II, but it still hasn't received an invitation. The reason: objections from the United States.
Many Reasons to Invite Iran
Not only Syria and Russia but also the UN and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi have said that Iran should join the talks, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently added his own weight to this demand. “Iran can play a very important role,” Ban said on December 23. “It's a very important regional power. Therefore, logically speaking, and practically and realistically, they should be a part of this meeting.”
That makes a lot of sense. Iran is deeply involved in the conflict. It has been a close ally of Syria’s ruling Assad family since 1979, and it supplies the regime with money, fuel, weapons, and even fighters. While this is what has earned Iran international condemnation, it is also precisely what has earned it a place at the negotiating table. Peace is not made between spectators but between warring sides—and Iran is one of them.
Tehran makes no secret of its intention to try to make or break a peace agreement. The government has hinted that it could push the foreign Shia Islamists fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw from Syria if it wanted to, and no other state has this sort of sway over the Shia radicals. Conversely, excluding Iran means that it could try to wreck an agreement not to its liking. And at the end of the day, if Denmark, South Africa, and Indonesia are invited, it would be ridiculous to exclude Iran.
Opposing Iranian Participation
Still, many governments are deeply uncomfortable with Iran’s presence at the Geneva II talks. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Arab states are much more concerned with weakening the regime in Tehran than displacing the one in Damascus. The main reason they’re even involved in Syria is to undercut Iranian influence. Granting Tehran a seat at the peace talks would go against the grain of that strategy.
Most of the armed opposition factions oppose Iranian participation at Geneva, but then again, most of them oppose Geneva altogether. The main U.S.- and Gulf-backed exile opposition body, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has also spoken out against Iran’s participation, even after it reluctantly agreed to the Geneva process. But it is not clear why the exiles feel that talking to Iran would be any worse than talking to Assad himself. It looks like meaningless posturing.
First Geneva I, Then Geneva II
Anonymous U.S. officials have hinted that the American objections to inviting Iran are partly related to Iranian military involvement in Syria, but State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was very explicit a few days ago: “They have not agreed to the Geneva communiqué; that is our issue with their participation.”
This refers to the declaration of June 30, 2012, following a conference of world powers meeting in Geneva to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict, often referred to as Geneva I. The June 2012 statement included a call for a combined opposition-regime “transitional governing body” with “full executive powers,” and this is supposed to be the starting point of discussions in Montreux and Geneva in January 2014. Iran’s refusal to publicly endorse these terms signals that it isn’t willing to play by the same rules as all the other participants. And it’s not only the United States that has picked up on this lack of commitment but also, for example, Turkey and the exile opposition.
Iran refuses to accept this logic, and it has repeatedly said it will not accept any “preconditions” for its participation. Apparently, that means that Iranian officials expect to be allowed to go to Geneva II without first passing Geneva I.
Ironically, the reason Iran hasn’t already endorsed Geneva I is that no Iranian delegation was invited to the June 2012 meeting, following American objections. At that time, the United States succeeded in isolating Iran, but only on paper and at the cost of losing its signature on the Geneva I document. In the year and a half that has passed since, the Tehran government has only grown more involved in the conflict, and isolating it from the peace talks is no longer a realistic option. In fact, it never was.
And the fact that Iran was blocked from participating in June 2012 is hardly an insurmountable problem. Saudi Arabia wasn’t invited to Geneva I either (it was removed as a quid pro quo for Iran’s exclusion). Neither was Brazil, Algeria, Sweden, Morocco, or Oman (since they are mostly irrelevant to the war in Syria). But these states will all join the Geneva II session at Montreux on January 22, having raised no objection to the Geneva I principles.
Why Won’t Iran Just Say the Words?
Iran could easily do the same, if it wanted to. Uttering a few words in support of the Geneva I declaration is a cost-free concession. Even Assad’s government has endorsed Geneva I, and there’s no reason that Iran couldn’t adopt the same interpretation and make the same formal endorsement.
And yet Iran refuses to take that simple step and say those few words, thereby almost guaranteeing that the United States will block its invitation to Geneva II.Is this simply about Iran being obstinate, or is Tehran trying to play the bad cop to Moscow’s good cop? Might Iran be trying to extract other concessions from the United States, even at the cost of wrecking the peace conference? Or perhaps the United States has secretly posed other preconditions—but then why wouldn’t Iran simply call the American bluff by endorsing Geneva I?