30 seconds over Syria: Iran talks must be expanded

  • 21 November 2013
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John Kerry speaks at the US State Department in Washington, DC, on November 20.
John Kerry said Geneva negotiators were not having "a geopolitical conversation right now"

From the hyperventilating Saudis, to the furious Israelis, to understanding Tuesday's tragic twin bombing in Beirut, it is all about Tehran these days.

A third round of nuclear talks with Iran is now under way in Geneva. President Barack Obama said it was unclear if a deal would be reached this weekend, but one thing is certain: the ongoing negotiations in a luxurious Geneva hotel and the prospect of a deal are roiling the whole Middle East.

There is no way of telling if there is a direct connection between the Geneva talks and the attack on the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, which has killed at least 22 people, but the violence is a manifestation of the deep fault lines running through the region.

Syria is a proxy battleground between Iran, Hezbollah and Russia on one side and the Gulf monarchies, the US and the West on the other.

While it is too early to envision how a nuclear agreement could transform the relationship between the US and Iran, I've been struck by how little US officials have to say, certainly in public, about the effect that progress with Iran could have on the region.

Ten days ago, I was travelling with Secretary of State John Kerry when he unexpectedly changed his itinerary and flew to Geneva to join the second round of negotiations. There was no deal in the end, but America and Iran had talked more in 30 hours than they had in the previous 30 years.

When I interviewed Mr Kerry a day later about the possible wider impact of the talks, he said: "We're not having a geopolitical conversation right now.''

I pressed further, asking how a nuclear deal could affect efforts to solve the conflict in Syria. He replied: "I don't think anybody has any idea."

Mr Kerry also said the conflict in Syria was only a 30-second discussion with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Surely Syria deserves more than that.

In the past, the US, and the rest of the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany (P5+1) have rejected efforts by Iran to include all sorts of random items on the agenda of nuclear talks, from Afghanistan to anti-narcotic efforts. They saw Iran's approach as a way of diluting the process and dragging out the negotiations while centrifuges were spinning, so the six powers insisted that the focus remain squarely on the controversial nuclear programme.

Today Iran is only talking plutonium and uranium in Geneva, but the US decision to stick to its "nuclear only" position is at odds with the changed context in which these talks are taking place.

Officials meet at the latest session of talks in Geneva on Iran's nuclear programme.
Talks between the US and Iran must address the Syrian civil war

First, Syria is collapsing and the Middle East is coming apart (yes, again, as usual, but it really is worse than ever). Second, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer president, and the current Iranian leadership is probably the best the world is going to see for a while.

No-one knows for sure yet whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are considering a shift in their regional calculations. And in the US, there are deep divisions and differences of opinions within the Obama administration about how to engage Iran in a wider conversation about the region and what the possible outcomes, dangers or benefits might be.

Discussing Syria with Iran for only 30 seconds, however, while Iranian Revolutionary Guards are fighting side by side with Syrian troops, is not tenable for much longer, certainly not past the day when an interim deal is reached.