Negotiating games

Even if the latest attempt at negotiating and end to Syria’s civil war don’t make any progress, at least Iran’s inclusion has upped the entertainment factor. First, the Iranians are making noises about walking away from the talks because Saudi Arabia is being too “negative”:

Iran said on Monday it would quit Syria peace talks if it found them unconstructive, citing the “negative role” of Saudi Arabia, in the latest twist in a spat between the regional rivals that bodes ill for efforts to ease turmoil across the Middle East.

Increasingly bad-tempered exchanges between the conservative Sunni-ruled kingdom and the revolutionary Shi’ite theocracy have dampened hopes of improved ties after the adversaries sat down for their first meeting to discuss the Syria war last week.

“In the first round of talks, some countries, especially Saudi Arabia, played a negative and unconstructive role … Iran will not participate if the talks are not fruitful,” ISNA cited deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying.

Although I can certainly see where you’d conclude that the Saudis are part of the problem here, not part of the solution, it should be noted that the Iranians aren’t exactly rising above the fray:

Delivering unusually personal criticism, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to reprimand Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who, on Saturday, lashed out at Tehran for what he termed its interference in regional countries.

“An inexperienced young man in a regional country will not reach anywhere by rudeness in front of elders,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA on Monday. He did not name the ‘young man’ but Jubeir was assumed to be his target.

Yeah, so, somebody will have to explain to me what’s “constructive” about telling the Saudi foreign minister to “shut up and maybe you’ll learn something, junior.” Doesn’t seem terribly diplomatic, you know? Anyway, this is probably a bluff, and not even a very good one. The Iranians would have to be loony to actually pull out of the talks; participating costs them nothing and just being in the room buys them a good deal of international clout, to say nothing of how important it is to them to be able to influence what’s happening. Threatening to withdraw only works if you think the other nations in the talks will come chasing after you to get you to stay, but if Iran pulls out, I can’t imagine they’ll be asked to come back, let alone begged or bribed to do so.

Another reason why I’m pretty sure they’re bluffing is because I think they’re running a planned good cop/bad cop thing with the Russians over Assad. To wit:

A major sticking point in the Vienna meetings was the question of President Bashar Al-Assad’s role in any future political solution for the country. Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime’s main backers, have long maintained that Assad must remain in power.

However, a source close to the Russian delegation at the meeting told Asharq Al-Awsat there had been some disagreements between the Russian and Iranian delegations in Vienna regarding the fate of Assad.

“Russia is dealing with the the fate of the presidency in Syria from the point of view of the legitimacy of the regime. In that sense it is not insisting on particular people; it is more concerned that any transition in governance must follow international protocols and laws,” the source, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said.

“Iran, on the other hand, is very insistent on Assad himself . . . because it fears losing its influence in Syria if [his] regime is removed.”

Maybe this is true. Russia, as a major military power and arms supplier, obviously would have more to offer a post-Assad Syrian government (for this exercise, let’s assume that everybody gets a pony and Assad is somehow followed by an elected, pluralistic, secular democratic government and not, you know, al-Qaeda) than Iran. On the other hand, we know that Russia and Iran have been coordinating over Syria for a little while now, so maybe they coordinated this, too. Russia gets to seem more reasonable (“we just want to make sure that everything is above board, you know”) while still protecting Assad, and they can also fall back on a “well, we’d be OK with this, but you know those damn Iranians” card if it comes to that.

There’s still a chance for these talks to do some good, by making progress towards resolving the war and, maybe, by getting the Iranians and the Saudis past the “oh yeah? well, the jerk store called” phase of their still-awkward relationship. But even if the talks accomplish neither of those goals, at least they’re still interesting to watch.

Just one big, happy family


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