Iranian support to help the west bring an end to the civil war in Syria would be beyond price
President Obama’s decision to consult Congress before taking any military action against the Syrian government offers a brief opportunity for diplomatic efforts to construct a political settlement. That decision has been welcomed by many in the Middle East, among them the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.
It is astonishing that, apart from by the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, Iran was hardly mentioned in the debates in parliament last week – given that it has a vital role in the region and is the key to a negotiated outcome. It is the most important ally that Syria has, as a recent report by the Rand corporation points out. With a population of 75 million, and with oil and natural resources, it is the most important Shia Muslim state in the world.
Iran is also a country that has suffered more cruelly than any other from chemical weapons. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran lost tens of thousands of young men, many to the obscene effects of chemical weapons used by Iraq, which was never condemned by the west.
Iran has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons, most recently in a statement by President Rouhani about the attack on the eastern Ghouta district of Damascus. He was careful not to associate the attack with a particular perpetrator, but the president’s detestation of chemical weapons was plain.
In the UN, Iran has been active in advocating the chemical weapons convention. President Rouhani has been bold in calling for negotiations with the western allies, and in committing himself to a foreign policy of “reason and moderation”. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has stressed the need for consultation and co-operation on Syria. In a country anxious about its own security, in a region where it feels threatened, it takes courage to speak in these terms. Iran’s political leaders are constrained by divided public opinion and by the views of its military elite, the Revolutionary Guard, which has close links with Syria. Iran’s president needs a constructive response from the west.
Iranians are tough bargainers. Negotiations will involve concessions on all sides. For the Iranians, that might mean concessions on the economic sanctions imposed by the west that have hit them very hard. But Iranian support to help bring an end to Syria’s civil war would be beyond price.
At the end of July, when it became clear that the people of Iran had elected, to general surprise, a liberal-minded and internationalist president, three peers – Lords Lamont and Phillips and myself – wrote a letter to the Times proposing that the United Kingdom should appoint a chargé d’affaires, a diplomat, to represent the United Kingdom at the new president’s inauguration. It was clear that he or she would be welcome in Tehran. But our government did not do so.
Our embassy, stormed by demonstrators in November 2011 during the Ahmadinejad government, had been without an ambassador since then. The US has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since the hostage crisis in 1979. France, Obama’s closest ally, alone has full diplomatic relations with Iran.
Any diplomatic outcome to the terrible Syrian civil war demands a two-track response: one to end the conflict, the other to deal with the humanitarian horror of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people within and without Syria, a burden now close to breaking the capacity of Jordan, the Lebanon, Iraq and even Turkey, to sustain them.
At this week’s G20 meeting in St Petersburg, the US, UK and France should propose their willingness to politically and financially support – at the forthcoming Geneva conference on Syria – a joint approach between themselves and governments of the Muslim world to the rebuilding of Syria and the resettlement of refugees once the war has ceased. As Al-Monitor, the Middle East newsletter, proclaimed last week, it is time now “to test Iran’s willingness to play a constructive role in seeking a political settlement in Syria”. It is surely also time now for the west to end the long isolation of Iran.
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