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Middle East and Africa

The Nuclear Agreement Brings Iran to the Syrian Negotiating Table

Negotiation table. Photo: The Nation

The arrival of Tehran at talks in Vienna opens up new scenarios in the Middle East

Two million people still living in Aleppo were left totally isolated for twelve days as a result of the last offensive on the city, and this led the head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations to sound the alarm on October 19th with regard to a new humanitarian emergency. Aleppo remains disputed, and civilians are caught in the middle, trapped between the forces of the Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, supported by Russians and Iranians, and the rebels, often linked to radical Islamism. With this type of offensive, "Aleppo will not fall into the hands of either side: it is a large urban area where it is difficult and expensive to fight, and no one has enough troops," explained Yezid Sayigh, Senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center. It is indeed "likely that the status quo will persist and we will not see any dramatic changes immediately." On the Iraqi front, on the other hand, the Kurds have now launched an operation to retake the town of Sinjar, captured by Islamic state fighters in the summer. The Kurdish forces are backed by air-power from the American-led international coalition and by small groups of fighters from the Yazidi minority in the region.



A first time for the Islamic Republic



While the fighting in Syria continues, international diplomacy has been engaged for several weeks in an unprecedented effort to find a compromise solution to the conflict. News came on October 30th of Iran's participation in the Vienna talks on Syria, attended among others by Russia, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. This is the first time Tehran has sat at a negotiating table since 2011, the year the Syrian uprising began, and it is no coincidence that this has happened just a few months after the signing of the nuclear agreement in July. That understanding "facilitates and creates conditions to start discussions in other areas of interest," Riccardo Redaelli, Professor of Geopolitics at the Catholic University of Milan, told Oasis. And not only that: according to Germano Dottori, Lecturer in Strategic Studies at LUISS, during the course of the negotiations, "there was even the feeling that the negotiating table was almost a cover, designed to conceal from the public the successful birth of a conciliation process used by the Americans and Iranians to talk." Iran has always had close relations with countries such as Russia, China and India. However, the signing of this agreement opens the way - though still hypothetical and fraught with difficulty - to reconnect with parts of the world closed off by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.



New schemes and new alliances



If we wish to understand the invitation of Tehran to Vienna, the signing of the nuclear agreement certainly needs to be taken into account, but it is not enough to explain it: the choice to include Iran at the negotiating table was heavily influenced by two other factors. The first is that the relationship between Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and their American counterparts is no longer characterised by what Dottori describes as "rigid opposition". It does not mean that Iranians and Americans agree on all outstanding issues, but at least today there is greater willingness to talk. The second factor is the upheaval in the Middle East. This "favours the reintegration of Iran into regional geopolitics, because the growth of sectarianism, the fragmentation of states, and the rise of the 'Caliphate' have blown all schemes and alliances up in the air. In the Middle East nowadays, 'my friend's friend is my enemy'."



The misgivings of Sunni regimes



The full reintegration of Iran into regional diplomacy would be a major turning point. Nevertheless, "the signing of the agreement has not brought about an improvement in relations between Iran and its regional rivals; rather the reverse", claims Redaelli. The Sunni regimes, including Egypt and the Gulf States, fear an expansion of Shiite hegemony throughout the region. Israel considers Tehran an existential threat, and like the United States and the European Union accuses the Islamic Republic of supporting terrorist movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.



The problems do not stop there: recent statements by Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, on the anniversary of the 1979 hostage crisis, indicated a resumption of anti-American rhetoric in the country. According to Professor Redaelli, "after the imposition of the Agreement on the ultraconservatives, Khamenei wants to re-balance the political landscape", making it clear to the reformists that they cannot push their demands beyond a certain point. In addition, the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, have no interest in protecting the agreement. They control key sectors of the Iranian system, and have enriched themselves thanks to the sanctions imposed on the country because of its nuclear programme.



A new Dayton



Despite these difficulties, the different positions on the war in Syria, and the problems posed by Iranian support of Hezbollah, "the invitation to Vienna was a step forward on a path leading to peace in Syria," according to Dottori. There is no alternative: if we want to reach a compromise, it is crucial that the Iranians are admitted to the negotiating table, together with the Americans, Russians, Saudis, and Turks. Hitherto, the meetings in Vienna have featured many marginal players who have little to say (and can do even less) when it comes to resolving the Syrian civil war. "We need a new Dayton - Dottori claims - but we must beware: restoring the unity of the Syrian state is no longer possible or desirable" because it would not guarantee protection for the vanquished. A first step to achieving a compromise has been made, but if the West does not want the Russians and Iranians to throw themselves body and soul into supporting al-Assad, "we must reassure them that their strategic interests in Syria will be somehow guaranteed even after a political transition," concludes Redaelli.



[twitter: @fontana_claudio]