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Interview – IranPolitik w/ Italy’s L’Indro on the Geneva II Conference

IranPolitik co-founder and managing editor Farzan Sabet recently conducted an interview with Italy’s L’Indro on the conference in Syria this week taking place in Geneva, Switzerland.

Excerpts of the interview can be found in Italian on L’Indro’s article page. For an English translation of the interview, please see below.

Barbara Ciolli: The power and influence of Iran in Syria, and generally in Middle East, is great, greater than Russian influence. Additionally, UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon underlined the necessity for Teheran’s participation in the Geneva II conference on Syria. Moreover, representatives of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey (big supporters of opposition) will be present. Could there be credible and effective peace talks in Switzerland without Iran’s presence?

Farzan Sabet: I think the prospect of advancing a political solution in Syria – as foreseen by the Geneva communique – is in doubt regardless of Iran’s presence. In the case of the Geneva II conference there was a credible threat that the opposition would not attend if Iran did, so Iran’s presence may have made the atmosphere even worse than it already is.

That is not to say that Iran will not be crucial to a final solution to the Syrian civil war; as the main regional backer of the Bashar al-Assad regime it will likely have to be factored in a big way for any ultimate solution. So ultimately Iran will need to be present one way or another, although it may not be at a multilateral forum like Geneva II. Iran has other ways of making its influence felt and negotiating.

BC: Teheran had said it would participate at the Geneva Conference only if there will be “no preconditions”. Is it explicit in this situation to put the exit of Assad as precondition for the beginning of peace negotiations? And will Iran, at least officially, never accept this precondition?

FS: From the evidence we have, Iran has backed the al-Assad regime to the hilt. But we also know that they are not fully happy with the regime – for instance his handling of the initial peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 or the apparent use of chemical weapons this summer. And they are very likely realistic about the long-term prospects of the regime to recapture all of Syria, which at this point seems unlikely. So in the long-term they might accept an alternative to the regime which preserves at least some of Iran’s interests, and this will have to leave.

But, as with nuclear negotiations, Iran is highly unlikely to accept preconditions as long as it feels like it has a strong enough hand. It won’t accept them, because it doesn’t have to, because it’s not the “international community” and opposition in exile which determine these dynamics. Rather it’s the military balance on the ground in Syria and at the moment the regime is doing well enough that Iran does not need to fora like Geneva II to exert influence.

BC: Is it fair in a democratic peace conference for building a new democratic Syria not to, for example, invite Syrian Kurdish representatives that are fighting for an autonomous region within Syria?

FS: I am not especially knowledgeable of Syria’s domestic politics, so I cannot speak on this issue with a high level of confidence. However, what any observer can see is that many of the groups influential on the ground in Syria will not be at Geneva II, including the PYD and other Kurdish groups. So can whatever result is reached in Geneva II actually be implement in Syria itself? If the answer is to be yes, then these groups will have to be included in the process at some point.

BC: Russia is pressing for the presence of Iran. The U.S. secretary of State John Kerry said vaguely, “representatives of Iran are welcome, if they’ll accept the democratic political transition in Syria.” Certainly, Washington has to balance this with the Syrian opposition, which threatened not to participate without the precondition of Assad’s removal.

But in the last months the impression has been of a general rapprochement between the United States and Russia, as well as between the United States and Iran, and, in last instance, between the United States and al-Assad regime. Do you think that U.S. President Barack Obama really wants the exclusion of Iran at Geneva II?

FS: I think the dynamics of nuclear negotiations and Syria are different. If there are narrowing of differences on the nuclear issue, these may not necessarily improve cooperation on Syria. Iran may feel it is in a position where it can (or has to) give concessions on its nuclear program, and likewise the U.S. is ready to negotiate and lift some of the sanctions and perhaps allow a limited Iranian program. But in Syria, Iran does not feel it can give concessions at this point and anyway it is not sitting across the table from the United States; rather, it is facing Saudi Arabia, the other Persian Gulf Arab monarchies, etc. with whom relations remain strained. Even if the Obama administration wants Iran to be at the table, the dynamics of Geneva II are very different than the P5+1. The latter is smaller, the differences narrower, and relations much more congenial. Geneva II attendees are much more numerous and diverse, and the anti-Iran sentiment is also much stronger.

Still, the question is whether the Obama administration wants to exclude Iran. I think if the United States wanted to include Iran, it would not have insisted on preconditions, so for whatever reason, it at least does not see a need to include Iran at the moment. In effect, this means that Iran has been excluded from Geneva II.

BC: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani will be in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum in Davos from 22 until 25 January, probably accompanied from a group of representatives. Is it plausible that, off the record, unofficial talks will occur between Iran and West regarding Syria?

FS: Let me put it this way: It is not implausible. As I mentioned earlier, Iran does not need to be at the conference table at Geneva II to exert influence, exchange views, and negotiate. It can do so within the framework of the P5+1 (in a limited way), in Oman, or elsewhere. Syria could thus be on the agenda for Iran in the backrooms of Davos, but this may not be the number one issue he is there to discuss.

BC: On one side, the Syrian government has sent in advance representatives to the Conference in Geneva and proposed an exchange of prisoners of war with the rebels, actually labelling a segment of the opposition as “terrorists”. On the other side, senior officials of the al-Assad regime have declared the Geneva II conference as useless. Additionally, according to Amr Mussa, the Arab League’s former secretary, the talks in Switzerland will not lead to a solution to the war. Are you also pessimistic?

FS: I think useful things can be achieved at Geneva II, but concrete steps toward a political solution in Syria is not one of them, so in this sense I am not optimistic. The factors are simply not there. Neither side is ready to negotiate and concede. Important players (like Iran or some of the more hardline Islamists in the opposition) are not at the table. I think the point is to keep the idea and mechanisms for a political solution alive and to perhaps have some achievements on the humanitarian and other fronts, but reaching an implementable political transition does not appear realistic based on what we have seen in the lead up to the conference.

BC: The United States and Europe Union are, like the Middle East, also threatened by al-Qaeda whose power has been spreading in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere such as Turkey, Russia, etc. Jihadist are, at the moment, the main concern of the West. In order to stop their advance, the United States and European Union will necessarily have to deal with Iran in the future, especially if Geneva II is unsuccessful. How central and crucial is Teheran for fighting al Qaeda?

FS: Iran sees al-Qaeda and the brand of Sunni Islam it promotes as both a major domestic national security but also foreign policy concern. It has faced off against al-Qaeda and its affilitates often. In 1998 the Taliban murdered nearly a dozen Iranian diplomats and Iran was on the verge of declaring war over the matter. Likewise it has faced al-Qaeda in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and now perhaps even Yemen. It is also a major issue from a domestic perspective. Nearly 10 percent of Iranians are Sunnis, and these mainly reside in socio-economically marginalized and ethno-linguistic minority regions. Iran has and continues to face the threat of al-Qaeda inspired terrorism in these perepheral regions including Sistan-Baluchistan, Khuzestan, and to a lesser extent Kurdistan provinces. One can argue a major component of Iran’s efforts in Syria is to prevent strongly anti-Iranian al-Qaeda and other hardline Sunni groups from coming to power, because it perceives them as a direct threat. So Iran could be very central and crucial to fighting al-Qaeda. This is probably one area of great overlap of interests between Iran and the West.

BC: Israel has sided with Saudi Arabia against nuclear negotiations with Iran, and also against Iran throughout the region. To obstruct a nuclear agreement, Tel Aviv threatened to stop the recently reopened peace talks with Palestine. Just last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu ok-ed his government to construct new settlements in West Bank and yesterday the European ambassadors in Tel Aviv were recalled. However, fighting al-Qaeda in Syria through Iran is also in the interest of Israel. Staying with Riyad means, in the final analysis, staying with the Jihadi groups. Why is Israel maintaining this line?

FS: Israel’s strategic calculus is an issue which could fill volumes here. It has an interest to roll back Iran’s nuclear program as much as possible and so it may cooperate with Saudi Arabia on this issue. It also has an interest in seeing the anti-Israeli al-Assad regime go and as long as the Jihadi groups are not in power and do not pose a direct threat to Israel but are focused on Iran, this issue is less of a concern than the nuclear program for Israel,it  will continue working with the Saudis, and it is happy to see the two sides bleeding each other.

Still, while Israel is alleged to have directly supported the al-Qaeda affiliated Jundullah in Iran in the past, we have not seen any credible evidence that it is in favor of or directly supports such groups in Syria and on its very borders. If one day we see the Jihadis triumphing in Syria, Israel may explicitly turn against these groups, and by extension the Saudis and Gulf monarchies as their foreign benefactor.