On the eve of the second round of Vienna talks on Syria including Iran, the diplomatic search for an end to the bloody conflict in the pivotal Arab country finds as its corollary a parallel improvement in Iran-US relations. With Washington consenting to Iran’s participation in these talks, tantamount to an acknowledgement of Iran’s regional clout, the next stage in US-Iran dialogue transcending the nuclear issue has now begun, which will require tremendous energy, focus, and mutual respect in order to move beyond the familiar pattern of half-steps and short-lived initiatives in the past that led to nowhere.
As expected, the nuclear agreement, which has received the blessing of lawmakers in both US and Iran and has now entered the initial implementation phase, has created a potentially suitable climate to extend to non-nuclear issues, particularly since as recognized by a number of US policy experts, Iran and US have a number of common interests, such as the threat of terrorism that can be the basis for broader dialogue between the two countries. Confidence and trust building between Tehran and Washington is a must and, in turn, requires learning from the past tumultuous history and the failed attempts at breaking the thick glacier of animosity between them, partly due to conflicting interests and also partly as a result of negative input by other countries as well as misperceptions.
But, the ‘Godot of US-Iran’ has already partially arrived in the form of the nuclear agreement, which is dependent on sustained US-Iran dialogue for the 8 to 10 years duration of the agreement, and which must be somehow kept insulated from any future deterioration in their relations over non-nuclear issues. With the US presidential elections looming ahead and the uncertainties regarding the next occupant of the White House, the future of US-Iran relations may be put in limbo until 2017, yet meanwhile a lot can be achieved incrementally in order to solidify the nuclear agreement and to chip away at the existing differences between Tehran and Washington.
Certainly, the deep understanding between top US and Iranian diplomats achieved as a result of marathon nuclear talks is a net plus that facilitates the pathway for bilateral and multilateral dialogue on such issues as the crisis in Syria and Iraq, in light of the fact that both US and Iran are engaged in military actions against the ISIS (Daesh) terrorists. The US air campaign against ISIS has been criticized as ineffective and insufficient, and there are also additional questions regarding US’s ISIS intentions, nonetheless it is patently obvious that ISIS presents a national security threat to Western interests and the sooner the US policy-makers exit their ambivalence on this matter, the better.
With respect to Syria, the recent statement by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, regarding the importance of national elections in Syria to bring about a government of national unity, reflects Tehran’s commitment to act as peacemaker in Syria and thus end the horrifying ordeal visited upon its population, so many of whom have been turned into war refugees. At the October 30th Vienna round, the 19-nation meeting resulted in a joint statement that calls for a UN-brokered political dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government, as well as the preservation of the Syrian state institutions, and therefore the expectations from the upcoming meeting is to take further steps toward the realization of this important objective.
Although Saudi Arabia has been pushing for a timetable for president Bashar al-Assad’s departure, both Iran and Russia oppose this idea so long as there are no firm guarantees that the Syrian state institutions will remain intact, instead of collapsing as was the case with Libya after the downfall of Moamer Gadaffi. Nominal pledges by the different stakeholders in the Syrian conflict is not enough and, perhaps, the UN peacekeeping forces have a role to play in order to prevent a future ‘Libyaizatin’ of Syria, which continues to possess a strong centralized army irrespective of the country’s military fragmentation.
One possible solution to the current Syrian quagmire is to proceed incrementally, instead of seeking a comprehensive and immediate resolution of the conflictual issues, such as by creating zones of peace in Syria, where with the UN assistance a peaceful process of reconciliation and political transition can be experimented. Presently, the country’s chaotic fragmentation and the influx of foreign forces make it exceedingly difficult to hold national elections in Syria and it may take several months or more in order to create the necessary environment for safe ballot boxes.
Another possibility is to create imaginative constitutional changes in Syria that would make it more of a parliamentary rather than presidential system, which would be more amenable to coalition-building and coalition government. Also, lessons from other elections in divided societies can be adopted, such as by setting up spatial distribution requirements for the national elections, as has been the case in, among others, Nigeria, Kenya, and Indonesia, complemented by apportioned seats for ethnic and religious groups in the parliament, as is the case in several countries such as Kosovo, Romania, Colombia, etc. South Africa’s post-apartheid experience with proportional representation can also be helpful in this regard. In the case of Comoros, electoral distribution requirements are extended to parliamentary elections, via a constitutional requirement that restricts parliamentary representation to parties winning at least two deputies on each of the three islands that make up the republic. With the integrated Syria divided into different islets of power, perhaps that is an apt comparison.
What is certain, however, is that Tehran and Washington have now embarked on a new regional security dialogue over Syria, which needs to extend to Iraq as well, in light of ISIS’s trans-border threat gripping both countries. If Tehran can be convinced of US’s intentions and observes further reassuring US steps against ISIS, then it can be persuaded to deepen the scope of dialogue that is presently limited to the nuclear issue and Syria.