Washington’s reluctance to include Tehran unconditionally in talks to end the war in Syria was on full view this week. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran to take part in preliminary peace talks at Montreux, Switzerland—quickly accepted—led to a diplomatic crisis after the U.S. insisted Iran had to embrace the agreement reached in June 2012 by the U.N.-backed Action Group for Syria, which among other things called for the formation of a transitional governing body. Syria’s main external opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also threatened not to show up to the talks if the Iranians were present. So within 24 hours the U.N. chief rescinded his offer, and the talks got underway yesterday without a delegation from Iran.
Washington fears that allowing Tehran into the official talks could enhance the regional and international standing of Iran, a belligerent nation in Syria’s conflict. The U.S. also wishes to avoid further alienating its allies in the Persian Gulf and Israel who are suspicious of Iran. But much has changed in the 19 months since the initial Syria accord was negotiated without Iran’s participation.
The daily reality in Syria is that Iran provides the funds, weapons, tactical guidance, intelligence and even armed forces—drawn from the elite Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij or paramilitary volunteers—that maintain a much-beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad in power. In an open show of Tehran’s clout, Iran’s foreign minister recently met with Assad in Damascus before traveling on directly to Moscow. Russia works indirectly with and through Iran to reinforce the Assad regime on the ground in Syria, in addition to working directly to bolster Russia’s long-term and sole-surviving Middle East ally in international settings.