Trump’s Offer to Meet with Iran’s President Rouhani Won’t Get Us a Better Deal. We Had Our Chance and Lost it.

A woman walks past a mural painted along Palestine Square in the Iranian capital Tehran on July 24. (Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images)

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” President Trump announced on Monday that he wants to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions to craft a new deal.

Trump thinks he can achieve this by sanctioning Iran until the rulers in Tehran beg for mercy. But if history is a guide, there will be no such capitulation by Iran: With the Iranians, one of the most costly things to do, both culturally and politically, would be to show Trump the respect and deference he desires after his aggressive string of insults.

So I am skeptical about Trump’s ability to pivot to diplomacy with Iran, but that is not to say that a better deal cannot be achieved. Indeed, better deals have often been on the table — but the United States rejected them at the time.

In March 2003, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the George W. Bush Administration through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, this proposal was not solely focused on nuclear matters: The Iranians offered to help stabilize Iraq, disarm Hezbollah and collaborate against all terrorist organizations (especially al Qaeda). They even offered to sign on to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, recognizing Israeli statehood in return for Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. And, of course, Tehran offered to open their nuclear program for full transparency.

But the Bush administration believed — much like Trump — that it could secure a better outcome by just continuing to pressure Iran and didn’t even dignify Iran with a response. Instead, the State Department reprimanded the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place.

Two years later, the Iranians sent another proposal through the Europeans: Having already expanded their nuclear program, Tehran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000. The Europeans didn’t even bother to forward it to Washington, knowing the administration would reject anything that allowed Tehran to keep even a single centrifuge.

The Iranians had roughly 150 nuclear centrifuges at the time of the 2003 proposal; by the time the interim nuclear deal was struck in 2013, Tehran had 22,000.

During a closed White House briefing with a number of organizations that favored a peaceful resolution to the Iran situation in early 2014, a colleague asked one of America’s negotiators where a final deal likely would land in terms of centrifuges. Would it be possible to rollback Tehran’s centrifuges to 3,000 again? “We would jump on the opportunity to get that deal if it was offered today,” the official responded.

A few weeks later, I interviewed the Iranian foreign minister during one of the round of talks in Europe and asked the same question, trying to find out how the centrifuge issue likely would be resolved. To my surprise, Zarif explained that 3,000 had just been Iran’s opening bid in 2005. “We would have settled for 1,000,” he recalled with a smile. Eventually, Obama’s nuclear rolled back their program to 5,000 centrifuges — 2,000 more than their opening bid in 2005.

There are many similar examples; what they all have in common is that the United States usually believes that it is too strong to ever offer Tehran any concessions and doing so would ultimately undermine America’s standing. After all, Iran — unlike North Korea — doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, the thinking seems to go.

 

From left, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a group picture in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after Iran and six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal. (Carlos Barria / Pool via AFP – Getty Images File)


Trump may even be eager to grant Tehran some concession: Trump partly opposed the Obama’s nuclear deal because it only lifted secondary sanctions (sanctions the U.S. imposed on other countries trading with Iran) without touching America’s primary sanctions, keeping American companies from entering the Iranian market. (Few doubt that Trump would love to build Trump Towers in Tehran.)
 
But other changes in U.S. policy will be trickier. Iran, for instance, will not agree to limit its missile program if Washington continues to sell Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.A.E. billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry. In fact, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi outspend Iran on weaponry by a factor of five and two, respectively, despite having far smaller populations. And while Iran cut back its defense capabilities through the nuclear deal, the Saudis and Emiratis both beefed up their defense spending. Unless Washington is ready to rethink its arms sales to its Arab allies — and Trump clearly wants to sell them more weapons — it should have no expectations that Iran will cut back its missile program.
 
Another non-starter is the idea that Iran must stop asserting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon while Washington continues to help Saudi Arabia starve the people of Yemen, turns a blind eye to the Saudi Crown Prince kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister and financing the spread of extreme Salafism (the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS).
 

And then of course you have Trump’s unquestioning support for the Netanyahu government in Israel and the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, where neither side is in a position to simply capitulate or walk away.

The bottom line is that a better, bigger deal invariable will entail both American and Iranian concessions. If Trump isn’t willing to recognize this, he should stop pretending that his reckless rhetoric and Twitter threats are aimed at paving the way for diplomacy.

Trump’s Iran Tweet May Trap US in Another War

 

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about the 2016 U.S Election collusion during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The world has become so numb to the words of the President of the United States that it even dismisses threats of war as either a political distraction or a Trumpian negotiation tactic.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s threat to inflict on Iran “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” may very well have been an effort to divert attention from the Russia investigation. Others have dismissed the danger of the tweet since Trump did an about-face on North Korea, going from calling the North Korean dictator “rocket man” to a “very honorable” man. And, on Tuesday, Trump stated once again that he’s “ready to make a deal” with Iran.
 

But there are five reasons why a pivot from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder — and why Trump’s reckless threats may trap the United States in yet another war.

 

1. Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose diplomacy. Japan and South Korea advocated it.

The geopolitical circumstances around North Korea differ vastly from that of the Middle East. In the North Korean case, America’s allies — and even its Chinese competitor — strongly opposed any military confrontation with Pyongyang and pushed for diplomacy. In fact, the pivot to diplomacy with North Korea had far more to do with the South Korean President’s maneuvering in the background than Kim Jong Un fearing Trump’s “fire and fury” or his sanctions.
 
In the Middle East, the situation is the opposite: American allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long opposed US-Iran diplomacy (with an impressive track record of sabotaging attempts at US-Iran dialogue). Mindful of their influence in Washington and the Trump administration’s deference to them, any attempt by Trump to pivot to diplomacy with Iran will likely face a formidable challenge by these Middle Eastern powers.
 
Moreover, there is no obvious “South Korea” in the Middle East today that can quietly do behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to bring the United States and Iran together — at least not one Trump would engage.
 
Former President Barack Obama needed a go-between to make diplomacy with Iran bear fruit. In that case, it was the country of Oman, which helped establish a secret diplomatic channel with Iran, paving the way for the historic nuclear deal of 2015. But Trump is unlikely to turn to Oman precisely because Obama did so.
 

2. Trump thinks pressure will force Iran to negotiate. He’s wrong.

Trump has stated that verbal escalation and sanctions will force Iran to come to the table. The logic is based on a misread of what brought about the nuclear deal of 2015. The conventional Washington narrative reads that Obama crippled Iran’s economy till the rulers of Tehran grudgingly agreed to negotiate. But the secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman reveals a very different picture.
While Obama’s sanctions were truly crushing — Iran’s GDP contracted more than 35% between 2012 and 2015 — Tehran did not lack leverage of its own. Its response to the sanctions was to double down on its nuclear program and move ever closer to a nuclear weapon. Just as sanctions put pressure on Tehran, more centrifuges put the squeeze on Washington.
 
It wasn’t until the Obama administration secretly made a major concession to Iran — agreeing that Iran could continue to enrich uranium on its own soil — that diplomacy started to bear fruit.
 
In other words, a policy solely centered on sanctions and pressure did not bring about the desired breakthrough in the talks. Ultimately, it was American flexibility that ended the standstill and elicited Iranian flexibility.
 
Two conclusions can be drawn from America’s past diplomatic experience with Iran. First, pressure alone will not work. Second, Iran will meet pressure with pressure. And herein lies the danger of Trump’s approach: Even if he does not intend to draw this to a conflict, he may quickly lose control over the situation once the Iranians decide to counter-escalate by, for instance, reactivating their nuclear program.
 

3. North Korea has a one-man dictator. Iran has politics.

North Korea is run by a one-man dictator with the political maneuverability to dramatically shift policy from testing nuclear weapons to sitting down with the man who hurled insults at him — without facing any domestic political consequences. Iran, on the other hand, has a complex political system where power is dispersed and not controlled by any single person or institute. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader — the most powerful man in Iran — cannot act alone without taking into consideration both public and elite opinion.
 
Iran’s fractured politics and factional infighting renders any dramatic policy shift — particularly involving diplomacy with the United States — all the more difficult. President Hassan Rouhani is already paying a political price for having been so “naive” as to negotiate with the “untrustworthy” Americans. The political space needed to restart negotiations, particularly after Iran adhered to the previous deal and Trump pulled out of it, simply does not exist right now and Trump’s rhetoric is not moving matters in the right direction.
 

4. Don’t forget: Trump hates Obama.

As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has pointed out, Trump’s antipathy toward Obama and his obsession with undoing Obama’s policy legacies should not be underestimated. As a Trump official told the Atlantic, “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine,” he explained. “We’re the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine.”
On Iran, that may not just translate into Trump killing the nuclear deal against the advice of his Secretary of Defense. It may also mean that Trump will pursue a nuclear deal with North Korea at almost any cost (a problem Obama left largely untouched) while rejecting a deal with Iran (the country Obama decided to negotiate with). More than striking a “better deal” with Iran, Trump may think that truly sticking it to Obama necessitates burying diplomacy with Iran altogether.
 

5. Trump advisers don’t want a deal; they want regime collapse.

The members of Trump’s inner circle have changed dramatically over the past few months. The so-called “adults in the room,” who had a moderating effect on Trump, have largely been replaced with ideological hawks, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And uber-hawk Tom Cotton has emerged as one of the senators whose advice and viewpoints Trump pays close attention to.
 
All three of these have a long track record of advocating confrontation with Iran. Bolton famously penned an op-ed in the New York Times at the height of the nuclear negotiations titled “To Stop an Iranian Bomb, Bomb Iran.” As a congressman from the state of Kansas, Mike Pompeo quipped that bombing Iran would only take 2,000 fighter jet attacks, which he said “is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Cotton, in turn, is the author of the unprecedented letter in the midst of the nuclear talks, telling the leaders of Iran not to trust the President of the United States.
 
Going forward, the moderate voices inside the Trump White House will essentially be absent, while new advisers will likely egg on Trump to escalate tensions further — even though the Trump administration continues to claim that its goal is not regime change.
 
All of this amounts to a sobering reality: Trump is embarking on a path of escalation without having the exit ramps he had with North Korea. The danger now is not to overestimate the risk of war, but to underestimate it.
 
 

Bloomberg Businessweek: Iran Nuclear Resolution Possible by July 20, Rouhani Says

“It’s amazing how quickly the new normal becomes the new normal – we tend to forget that nine months ago this was impossible,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said by telephone on Tuesday.

NPR: Interview with Trita Parsi on Nuclear Negotiations Resuming with Iran

“For a deal to be enduring, both sides need to feel that they won. I think it is important to try to find a balanced deal and resist the urge for tactical short gains and think a little more long term. That way we can be sure this deal is something that can last,” said Trita Parsi, starting at 14:00.

 

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NIAC Applauds Protection of Persepolis Tablets in Chicago

Persepolis Tablets

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC – National Iranian American Council applauds the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois protecting the Persepolis Tablets and other ancient Iranian artifacts from being awarded as damages in a court proceeding.

“This is a victory that protects the culture and history of the Iranian people so that these antiquities can be appreciated by everyone,” said NIAC President Trita Parsi. “Iran’s heritage is owned by the people, it is not the property of Iran’s government and it cannot be treated as currency.”

The Persepolis Tablets provide the world’s only first-hand window into daily life in Persepolis 2,500 years ago. But these and thousands of ancient Persian artifacts in the United States were under the threat of seizure as part of a judgement against the Iranian government.

Since 2006, NIAC has been a leading voice in the Iranian-American community’s efforts to protect the Persepolis Tablets and other Persian antiquities in the United States.  NIAC filed an amicus brief in the case in 2008 and also advocated to the White House as well as in Congress to protect the tablets.

The items at University of Chicago and other universities and museums were under threat as part of civil suit in response to a 1997 Hamas attack. While the court found that Iran’s government was responsible for the attack by allegedly providing material support to the bombers, plaintiffs have been unable to collect the entirety of a $400 million judgment awarded in damages. Thus, lawyers attempted to seize Persian artifacts on display at various museums, including the Persepolis Tablets collection that has been at University of Chicago since the 1920s.

On Friday, the Judge presiding over the case in Illinois ruled that the Iranian government did not own the artifacts at the Chicago Field Museum and that the artifacts at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute were loaned for scholarship instead of commercial purposes so could not be seized. While the decision can now be appealed, NIAC hopes that this will definitively protect these items and will continue to ensure this is the case.

“The Iranian-American community supports justice for all victims of the Iranian government, and indeed nobody has suffered more than the Iranian people,” said Parsi. “But going after museums and seizing antiquities representing the history and identity of the Iranian people would have meant using one injustice to perpetuate another injustice that would have set a devastating precedent.”

In addition to the Persepolis Tablets at the University of Chicago, Persian artifacts at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art and Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Harvard University, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Previous decisions have been made in those cases to protect those items as well.

Bloomberg: Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei Dismisses Any Compromise With U.S.

 

“Khamenei is signaling, primarily to his domestic audience, that the nuclear deal doesn’t change the larger picture — Iran still distrusts America… It’s a mirror image of what is said in Washington: The nuclear deal doesn’t mean that the U.S. has begun trusting Iran,” said Trita Parsi.

 

 

 

Huffington Post: The Illusion of AIPAC’s Invincibility

 

The defeat of AIPAC’s ill-advised push for new sanctions on Iran in the midst of successful negotiations is nothing short of historic. The powerful and hawkish pro-Israeli lobby’s defeats are rare and seldom public. But in the last year, it has suffered three major public setbacks, of which the sanctions defeat is the most important one.

 

 

 

Obama Warns Congress Off Iran Sanctions

In last night’s State of the Union address, the president had the opportunity to address the group of lawmakers that could very well determine whether his legacy includes a deal that resolves the nuclear crisis with Iran or whether the U.S. continues on a path toward an unnecessary and costly war. The president dedicated four paragraphs of his speech to Iran diplomacy, giving a forceful statement that it is diplomacy, not pressure, that is primarily responsible for the nuclear deal and warned that he would veto any sanctions bill that threatened Iran diplomacy.

Such a reminder is necessary because sanctions have been falsely credited with creating the opening for Iran diplomacy, and many on Capitol Hill have bought into the idea that more sanctions will equate to a better nuclear deal. This idea discounts the decisive role the Iranian people had in returning moderates to power that believe it is in Iran’s interest to find a win-win solution with the U.S. Rather than react to a more moderate Iran by supporting new sanctions and pressure, confirming Iranian hardliners’ warnings that sanctions will never be lifted through diplomatic engagement, Obama stated his belief that “we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”

Twelve years removed from President George W. Bush’s infamous axis of evil speech, which devastated hopes for broader reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of cooperation on Afghanistan, Obama struck a far different chord — prioritizing diplomacy over threats of war. According to the president, “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

Let’s hope the president’s message sinks in, because reflexive congressional support for punishing Iran regardless of the consequences remains one of the key obstacles to shattering 34 years of mutual enmity and securing a nuclear deal — and the possibility of a brighter future for the people of the United States and Iran. Over the past few weeks, a determined push by Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk to impose new sanctions on Iran gathered 59 cosponsors (16 Democrats, 43 Republicans), before stalling in the face of determined opposition from Senate Democrats and the looming threat of a presidential veto. Now, cosponsors of the sanctions bill, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Richard Blumenthal have indicated that the bill shouldn’t come up for a vote. Supporters are falling off, not joining.

There were numerous problems with the Menendez-Kirk bill, including that it would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement by imposing new sanctions, despite the U.S. promising, along with our negotiating partners, to abstain from doing so in the first phase of the nuclear agreement. To delay the implementation of those sanctions, the president would have to certify measures above and beyond what Iran agreed to in the nuclear deal, including certifying that Iran is not conducting missile tests or supporting terrorist groups. Further, the bill would set unnecessary and unattainable red lines for a final deal, including that Iran must dismantle its entire enrichment infrastructure — violating a clear Iranian red line in talks.

Now opponents of diplomacy are seeking to scrap the sanctions provisions of the bill and move forward with congressional resolutions that define expectations for the end game. This would provide an opportunity for opponents of diplomacy and a nuclear deal — both inside and outside Congress — to sabotage negotiations by setting unrealistic expectations. Any language requiring Iran to dismantle facilities or certain numbers of centrifuges, for example, or mandating that Iran abandon any enrichment capacity — would reduce leverage for a final deal and make one more difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Congress shouldn’t make our negotiators’ job more difficult than it already is.

Ultimately, Congress needs to move away from threatening to play spoiler to making sure the President has the authority to leverage existing sanctions in exchange for concrete nuclear concessions. With decades of congressional sanctions on the books, including recent sanctions that only provide the president with temporary waiver authorities, Congress needs to work with the administration in order to obtain the authority to permanently lift sanctions to extract the best deal possible. Such a move would provide clear assurances that we can uphold our end of the bargain. Without those assurances, our negotiators have a weak hand and might only be able to obtain a weak and reversible deal that distances but fails to eliminate the threats of war and an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Fortunately, there is room for common ground. As the president indicated, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — without the risks of war — is a goal we should all share.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

 

 

 

 

The New York Times: An Iranian American Who Believes in Diplomacy

 

[NIAC] has been a longtime advocate of diplomacy and the White House has clearly taken unprecedented steps in that direction. To extend an invitation to Trita Parsi would be a wise and bold move.

 

 

 

ECFR: Reorienting Iran’s Outlook Beyond the Nuclear Deal

 

“Ultimately [a final deal], if successful, is not just going to be about centrifuges and breakout capabilities… [it] has the potential of significantly reorienting Iran’s entire outlook in the region and towards the outside world which then also will also have a deep impact of how things look inside of the country as well,” said Trita Parsi.

 

 

 

Two Left Feet: Can Washington Dance with Tehran While They’re Listening to Different Music?

If President Barack Obama’s administration sought to prove that successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran would not improve U.S.-Iranian relations in other areas, the recent diplomatic fiasco over Syria marks a job well done. On the very same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was implementing the nuclear interim agreement, Washington successfully pressured the United Nations to rescind its invitation for Tehran to attend the peace talks on Syria based in Montreux, Switzerland.

The peace talks on Wednesday, Jan. 22, with both sides exchanging bitter recriminations, and accusing the other of responsibility for the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians in this conflict. But the diplomatic process stumbled even before the talks began, as what first appeared to be a diplomatic coup for the United Nations ended up an embarrassing farce.

It all began on Jan. 19, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonannounced that he had invited Iran to the Geneva talks after officials in Tehran had pledged to play “a positive and constructive role.” The secretary-general does not generally take bold steps without Washington’s consent, so his announcement implied that the United States had dropped its opposition to Iran’s participation and that Tehran had agreed to the communiqué of the first Geneva conference — declaring that the goal of the conference is the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But instead of a breakthrough, Ban’s outreach almost brought about the collapse of the entire diplomatic dance around Syria. It turned out there was not enough coordination with either Washington or Tehran: The Syrian opposition, backed by Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, quickly responded to the invitation by threatening to boycott the conference. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the invitation to be rescinded, while a U.S. official told the media that Kerry was “furious” with Ban for the surprise invitation.

On top of that, Tehran declared that it had actually never accepted the first Geneva communiqué, which was the American precondition for partaking in the conference in the first place. The farce climaxed a few hours later, when Ban caved and rescinded Iran’s invitation — even though Tehran had already announced that it was declining to attend.

To hear Iranian officials tell it, they never implied that they were willing to change their stance on Syria. A high-level Iranian source told me that Tehran had repeatedly made it clear in conversations with Ban, starting on Jan. 17, that it would not accept any preconditions for attending Geneva II. Tehran, the official wrote in an email, was particularly mindful of the fact that the United Nations had “invited those who support terrorist organizations on UN list and US [terror] list [sic] without precondition.”

U.N. officials, however, see it differently. A senior U.N. diplomat told me that Iran had not been clear about the Geneva I communiqué, which had led to the misunderstanding regarding Iran’s position on the Geneva principles. Nevertheless, U.N. officials still maintain that Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s primary ally, is needed at Geneva for the peace talks to succeed.

But rescinding an invitation is not an act befitting a U.N. secretary-general. Former E.U. High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana did not mince words about the debacle, taking to Twitter to accuse the United Nations of showing “a lack of professionalism” for having unnecessarily withdrawn Iran’s invitation.

But the rescinding of Iran’s invitation sent a strong signal. Any notion — in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Tehran — that the United States is shifting its alliances in the Middle East has quickly been dispelled. There is no Tehran tilt — at least not now.

Perhaps this was the reason for Washington’s insistence on Iran’s invitation being rescinded: The United States wanted to dispel any suspicion that its nuclear diplomacy with Iran has caused it to lean toward Tehran’s position on regional matters. Such a belief, after all, could generate even more ferocious Arab opposition to the already-fragile nuclear talks.

This issue goes to the core of the dilemma behind the United States’ and Iran’s diplomatic dance. While both countries share numerous common interests, they differ on the speed and public visibility of this thaw.

U.S.-Iranian cooperation could reap many benefits for both parties — including on Syria. U.S. officials privately say that Washington’s focus has shifted from seeking Assad’s ouster to the more limited initial goal of ending the violence, which means Tehran’s collaboration is needed more than ever before. Both Washington and Tehran wish to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state, as they fear that such a scenario would strengthen al Qaeda — perhaps even leading to the jihadist groups seizing control of some of Assad’s chemical weapons.

But Washington wants to proceed slowly. U.S. officials in the executive branch want deliberations to take place behind the scenes, far away from the eyes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and opponents on Capitol Hill, who all are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of ending the 34-year-old U.S.-Iranian enmity.

Progress, these U.S. officials hope, will be achieved with little fanfare. In fact, occasional public humiliation of Iran can come in handy to calm those panicking about a world where the United States and Iran are no longer at each other’s throats.Why

Tehran, in turn, wants a lesser thaw in relations — but it wants it faster. Iranian officials are not looking for a partnership with the United States, and they are certainly not looking to compete with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey for the position of America’s most valuable regional ally. At best, a senior Iranian official told me, U.S.-Iranian relations will resemble U.S.-Russian ties: A rivalry, but one that nevertheless includes — or perhaps tolerates — both tactical and strategic cooperation in numerous areas.

But within that rivalry, Tehran needs Washington. It cannot completely break out of its isolation without Washington’s compliance. It needs U.S. assistance to reverse the onslaught of sectarianism throughout the region, and to contain the threat from al Qaeda.

But Iran wants the spillover effects of the progress on the nuclear issue to come faster, and wants Washington to provide it with public recognition of its seat at the regional decision-making table. In short, it wants fanfare: For Tehran, being seen as part of the solution is a big part of the solution to the region’s woes.

This is precisely why Monday’s diplomatic circus is so problematic for Tehran. The instantaneous outrage at Iran’s invitation brought to the fore the remarkable decline of Tehran’s standing in some quarters of the Arab world. It remains to be seen if it will also impact President Hassan Rouhani’s standing domestically. It is an undeniable blow to his efforts to improve relations with key Arab neighbors if Syrian opposition groups threaten to abandon their seat at the peace talks if Iran has one.

Iran could, of course, shrug off this setback. It could retreat to its narrative of resistance, and celebrate how it stood its ground and refused to succumb to any preconditions. But for Iranian-Arab relations to deteriorate at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations are improving highlights the depth of Tehran’s regional discord. And it contradicts Iran’s own discourse, which fingers American meddling as the cause of Iran’s tensions with its Arab neighbors.

But this is not just a setback for Tehran. Whatever details of the story prove true, the reality is that this diplomatic fiasco has been a confidence-eroding exercise for all parties involved. The Geneva conference may have been salvaged by ensuring the participation of the Syrian opposition, but there is now less confidence that it can amount to anything. Washington may have patched up relations with the Syrian opposition — but with positive results in Syria less likely, support for U.S. regional leadership will further weaken.

And most importantly, for the Syrian people, an end to the gruesome fighting appears ever more distant. Neither the opposition nor Assad’s forces have the strength to defeat the other. Yet the fighting continues, leaving thousands more dead solely to uphold an unsatisfactory stalemate. However, absent external support to the fighting parties — primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran — the resources for war would quickly dry up. That’s precisely why a peace conference without both foreign powers behind this uprising-turned-proxy war is likely to go nowhere.

(This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy

 

 

 

Foreign Policy: How Iran Played the U.N. — and Drove the U.S. Nuts

 

“The secretary-general miscalculated; The Syrian opposition freaked out much more ferociously than he expected. This ended up being a confidence depleting exercise between Iran and the secretary general, the U.S. and Iran, and the U.S. and the secretary general,” said Trita Parsi.