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Nuclear progress won’t end tensions for Iran, West

In this phoreleased by Syrian official news agency SANA Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left meets with Syrian President

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Assad and Zarif have held talks about next week's United Nations conference in Montreux, Switzerland, aimed at trying to resolve the three-year deadly conflict. (AP Photo/SANA)

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The U.N. decision to revoke Iran’s invitation to this week’s Syrian peace talks almost as quickly as it came was a reminder that the path to reconciliation between Tehran and the West is hardly a smooth one. Progress on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is no guarantee of an easing of tensions in the multiple disputes between the two sides.

Iran took a major step in defrosting relations with the West over its nuclear program by halting high-level uranium enrichment Monday as part of a landmark interim deal that wins it an easing of some economic sanctions.

But the very same day on the Syria front, Tehran showed it was sticking by its key ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, by refusing to endorse the premise of the peace talks — a call for the creation of a transitional Syrian government.

The flap over the invitation to the talks, which begin Wednesday in the Swiss resort town of Montreux, left both sides clearly stung.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the revoking of the invitation by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, only a day after he issued it, was “behavior below his dignity,” accusing him of bending to pressure from “the U.S. and some groups whose hands were smeared with the blood of the Syrian people.”

Ban’s office, in turn, suggested the U.N. chief had been misled by Tehran.

Ban’s spokesman, Farhan Haq, said Tuesday that he had understood from conversations with Zarif that they had reached an “oral understanding” that would be followed by a written understanding, accepting the premise of the negotiations. “That didn’t happen. He was disappointed with what the follow-up was,” Haq said, referring to Iran’s insistence Monday that it would participate in the negotiations “without preconditions.”

The events Monday highlighted the multiple facets of the disputes between Iran and the West — and how a step forward in one doesn’t rule a step back in another.

The nuclear program is one major dispute, with the U.S. and its allies fearing that Tehran aims to build nuclear weapons and Iran insisting its program is for peaceful purposes. But it’s not the only one. The United States sees Iran as a sponsor of terrorism for its backing of militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and it and its Arab allies have been pushing back against Tehran’s moves to spread its influence in the Middle East — particularly through its alliance with Assad.

Still, so far all sides appear intent on keeping the disputes compartmentalized.

“Iran will feel snubbed” over the invitation but not enough to imperil its chances at securing a lasting nuclear deal in exchange for broader sanctions relief, said Cliff Kupchan, director for the Middle East at the U.S.-based consulting firm Eurasia Group.

“It’s a glitch but not a game-changer,” he said. “Both sides have bent over backwards to avoid linkage between the nuclear issue and regional issues.”

Moderate Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has said resolving the nuclear dispute is key to ending the painful economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europeans, and his administration has shown it wants to improve relations with the West. The interim nuclear deal that went into effect Monday starts a six-month clock for further negotiations on a final agreement.

Even as the U.S. and European allies ease some sanctions, they are determined to keep many others in place to ensure a further rollback of the program and prevent Tehran from building an atomic bomb.

“Iran still faces several hurdles before normalizing relations with the international community,” the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor noted in a report Tuesday. “If Tehran finds itself completely financially and politically secure, it will have much less incentive to reach a diplomatic settlement” on the nuclear issue, it added.

At the same time, Iran sees its alliance with Assad as a vital national interest. Tehran is committed to expanding its geopolitical influence even if that means unsettling the United States and important oil-producing Gulf Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia. That determination was on display when two Iranian warships set sail Tuesday for their first-ever mission to the Atlantic Ocean.

Shiite heavyweight Iran has supplied Assad’s government with advisers, money, supplies and lines of credit. It also backs the Lebanese Shite militant group Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to fight alongside Syrian forces. Assad and many members of his inner circle belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The opposition fighters battling Assad’s rule are mainly Sunnis, and several of the rebel groups receive support from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf states. That has turned the conflict in many ways into a proxy war that is now destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, which have their own fraught sectarian divisions.

About 40 countries have been invited to the Syria talks, and its sponsors — including the United States and Russia — have said those attending must accept a 2012 roadmap established at a previous meeting in Switzerland that calls for a transitional government. When the invitation to Iran was announced, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, threatened to pull out of the talks, and the United States pressed for the invite to be revoked.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham called the withdrawal “deplorable” and said Iran had never demanded a seat at the table in the first place. Iran’s absence will not change its support for a political solution “based on dialogue and a peaceful settlement of the crisis,” she said.

The U.N.’s withdrawal of the invitation means Tehran will have little direct influence over the course of the Syria negotiations despite its firm backing for Assad.

“Iran will be mainly an observer from now on,” said Hamid Reza Shokouhi, a Tehran-based political analyst and editor of independent Mardomsalari daily. “Iran will not have a negative role, however it cannot play a constructive role either.”

The American pressure on the U.N. over the invitation could embolden Iranian hard-liners that oppose Rouhani’s efforts to improve dialogue with the West, Shokouhi said. They can argue that it is another sign that Western powers cannot be honest brokers or trustworthy strategic partners.

Hard-liners have denounced the nuclear deal, with one lawmaker blasting it as a “poisoned chalice.”



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