21st Oct 2016

EU and US at odds over Iran's role in Syria

  • Mural on wall of former US embassy in Tehran (Photo: kamshots)

EU diplomats disagree with the US and Israel on whether Iran should join a Contact Group on Syria.

UN emissary Kofi Annan last week called for the formation of a body akin to the one which steered events in the Balkans in the 1990s or the one formed last year on Libya.

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An EU source told this website it should have an "inner circle" of five or six big powers - such as the EU, Russia, Turkey and the US - and an "outer circle" of 15-or-so other countries.

Its main tasks would be to stop the violence and to prepare for the day after President Bashar Assad falls.

The source said that without a post-Assad plan, the country risks becoming a "black hole" the way Iraq did after the US removed Saddam Hussein.

EU countries are currently holding talks on whether to call for Iran's inclusion.

For its part, the US says it should be kept out because it is helping Assad - its main ally in the region - to massacre his own people.

"Iran has not demonstrated to date a readiness to contribute constructively to a peaceful political solution," America's UN ambassador, Susan Rice, said last week.

The US is in a de facto state of war with Iran since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran. They have no diplomatic relations.

It is also Israel's enemy number one.

"It is naive to think Iran will play a constructive role [in the group]," a former Israeli intelligence chief told press and diplomats at a recent meeting in Brussels.

Several EU diplomats interviewed by EUobserver said Iran will be vital in getting Assad's security forces to play a part in a future transitional government, however.

"They do not want to see a years-long civil war, involving hostile Islamic radicals, on their doorstep," one contact said.

"It's hard to imagine [US secretary of state Hilary] Clinton sitting down with Iran to talk about the future of Syria. But in the wider picture, is a political solution in Syria possible without Iran?" another EU source noted.

'Cloaked in irrationality'

For her part, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has had a taste of Iranian diplomacy in her role as chief negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks.

Commenting on how hard it was to agree a meaningful agenda for the nuclear meeting in Moscow on Monday (18 June), a member of her team said: "Its behaviour is sometimes very rational, but cloaked in irrationality."

Iran likes to keep the EU in the dark.

An EU diplomat based in Tehran said Iranian officials refuse to meet him: "EU diplomats in Iran basically talk to each other."

But the two sides have functional day-to-day relations.

The French, German and Swedish embassies in Tehran cultivate EU business interests. An EU diplomat in Afghanistan - a massive source of heroin - said: "Iran is doing more than Europe to stop drugs getting into Europe."

'What are you bringing?'

The price of making friends could be big: assurances that the West will not pursue regime change in Iran; legitimisation of its role as a regional power; no oil sanctions.

One senior official in Ashton's service predicted the US will get its way. "I don't think it will be possible to include them in the Contact Group," he said.

But for his part, the Tehran-based EU diplomat said the EU's open door with Iran is an important asset.

"It concerns the EU's post-Lisbon role in the world," he noted, referring to the Lisbon Treaty, which created Ashton's diplomatic corps in order to give the Union more collective influence.

"When you sit around the top table with the UN Security Council countries, the question is what are you bringing? The EU can bring its partnerships, the fact that it can talk to everybody," he said.

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