Is Iran the Problem and the Solution in Syria?

The Islamic Republic is both the problem and the solution.

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The progress made to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons was only possible because the United States seriously engaged with Syrian President Bashar Assad's allies in Moscow. To maximize prospects for a ceasefire, the United States must also prioritize engaging Assad's allies in Tehran. Iran's unmatched influence on the Assad regime is essential to secure a diplomatic resolution of the war that continues to ravage the country.

Following last week's visit to Tehran by U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, the Obama administration should heed Brahimi's advice that Iran's presence at the Geneva II conference is "natural and necessary." While it appears the Geneva II talks will be further delayed, now is the time to lay the groundwork for Iran's participation in the Geneva conference.

The United States still insists that Iran can only join the Geneva II talks if Iran first signs the Geneva Communique. The Geneva Communique is the agreement calling for a "transitional governing body" to rule Syria, which was signed at the first Geneva talks. Since Iran was excluded from the first Geneva conference, at the behest of the United States and France, it is not a signatory of the Geneva Communique.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In response, Iran's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marzieh rejected any preconditions to its attendance at the Geneva conference. Iran is particularly unlikely to sign the Geneva Communique because the agreement's endorsement of a transitional government has been advertised by the United States as code for regime change, though the agreement doesn't expressly mention Assad's ouster.

Paradoxically, Iran's participation in a political settlement for Syria offers the greatest prospect for the Geneva Communique's call for a transitional government to become reality. Certainly, the Assad regime is unlikely to agree to a power sharing agreement with the opposition or a near-term ceasefire without the blessing of Tehran. However, such breakthroughs are realistic only as potential outcomes of negotiations, rather than as preconditions for them.

Various political affiliates of Syria's armed opposition, which has been furnished with arms from the Gulf and the West, have, unsurprisingly, joined their patrons in opposing Iran's presence in Geneva II. Even without Iran's participation, the Syrian National Council has called for boycotting the talks until the Assad government falls. However, various Syrian nonviolent opposition leaders and civil society groups have been supportive of the Geneva II process, urging all major internal factions and external powers that are party to the conflict to negotiate an end to the killing.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Unfortunately the voices of the Syrian opposition who support an inclusive approach to resolving this conflict are seldom heard by U.S. policymakers or by the U.S. public. However, it was the unarmed opposition that started the Syrian uprising, continues to be active on the ground and has strenuously opposed all forms of foreign military intervention -- whether Iranian, U.S., Russian, Turkish or from the Gulf States.

Over the past two years, Syrians have witnessed the civil war intensify as a result of foreign military intervention. In this respect, the Lebanese civil war offers crucial historical lessons. It is widely believed that the Lebanese civil war would have burnt itself out in its early years if it weren't for Syrian, Israeli, Iranian and Western military involvement, which prolonged the war and escalated the killing during the 1980's.

The Lebanese civil war came to an end when internal factions and external actors negotiated the Taif Agreement of 1989. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States ultimately played a constructive role in negotiating the political settlement, despite the role that these countries played in destabilizing Lebanon. All of these governments could use the inclusiveness of the Taif Agreement negotiations as a model for negotiating a diplomatic end to the slaughter in Syria.