Neither has the bargain matured nor are conditions ripe for a handshake between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani. We are still in a phase of complete disproportion between what decision-makers in Tehran have sought and what has been suggested by those carrying Iran's message in New York. The Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) has made it clear to the Iranian presidency that there were certain set principles that could not be leapt over, and this has been one of the reasons preventing even a mere handshake between Obama and Rohani at the United Nations. Some have considered this to represent yet another blow to the US President, who seems to some leaders to be prone to or tolerant of blows. Others have considered the Iranian stance to be quite natural and ordinary, and well within the Iranian political tradition, based on the principle of "take what you're given then ask for more." The Iranian President has disappointed those who had wagered on a qualitative shift in American-Iranian relations, via the symbolic gesture of a passing meeting or handshake - most of them being quite superficial and in a rush to close the chapter of the fundamental dispute between the United States and Iran, and in fact quite prepared to leap over the points of disagreement. The US President has actually given the Islamic Republic of Iran in his speech at the United Nations some of the most important points it had insisted on strategically for years: first, recognition of the Iranian regime's legitimacy and a public pledge not to change it or support a coup against it; second, recognition of Tehran's regional role in the Arab World, while expressing willingness to negotiate with it over the fate of Syria, considering Iran to represent a main gateway for the future of Syria in terms of the regime and the President; and third, leaving the door open to further Western concessions to Tehran on the nuclear issue, through a ministerial meeting between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Such concession will not only be technical, but will also most likely meet the foremost demand of the new Iranian government, namely, reducing or repealing the economic sanctions imposed on it.
What now of the overlapping of Iran's nuclear-economic negotiations with attempts to resolve the Syrian crisis, which has resulted in the death of over a hundred thousand people, with over seven million Syrians displaced and refugees, terrible destruction, and perhaps the partitioning of one of the most pivotal Arab countries?
President Obama dedicated his speech before the UN General Assembly this week to say that the two main pillars of his second term in office in the Middle East are the Iranian nuclear issue and achieving peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Neither of the two is within reach, and in fact, both issues represent an opportunity for flexible diplomacy and a long process that would not require immediate measures calling for swift and decisive decision-making.
He said that the United States was not inclined towards isolationism, but President Obama also said very clearly that America under his presidency seeks partnership in taking the initiative, and that it would not take any initiatives on its own unless the matter concerns the core of what has been deemed to represent its national interest. He then clarified that Syria represented an example of Washington - under his presidency - not resolving to take the initiative.
In effect, Obama addressed Russia and Iran when he spoke of the features of resolving the Syrian crisis, recognizing - as a de facto situation -that he had entrusted them with working to reach a political settlement. Some view such a stance as making light of Arab countries, which should have a say in Syria, the latter being an Arab country first and foremost, not a country owned by Iran or Russia. Others consider that Obama has found in Tehran and Moscow a gateway to present his view of what would in his opinion represent the features of a political settlement.
The features of such a settlement, according to the US President's speech, are for Russia and Iran to agree to give up on President Bashar Al-Assad, instead of clinging to him at the beginning and at the end of the process of political transition in Syria; and in exchange, for the Syrian opposition and those supporting it, in particular Arab Gulf countries alongside the United States, to agree to maintaining the Syrian regime, modified and immunized by the integration of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In other words, the American discourse, as articulated by the President, focuses on separating the Syrian President from the Syrian regime in a gradual process over several months. This has come through his appealing to Russia and Iran to abandon Bashar al-Assad because he "cannot regain [his] legitimacy," and through calling on the Syrian opposition and those who support it to preserve state institutions and a role to play for the Alawite community.
This is what the US President has put forward publicly, but not - so far - what Russia or Iran has accepted publicly. In fact, there is not yet any indication that they might have accepted it secretly, although this would not be unlikely. In other words, President Obama may well have given publicly what would, within Russia and Iran's considerations, fall under the principle of "take and ask for more."
What everyone agrees on now is the language of a "political solution." Everyone - with very few exceptions - is now discussing only a political solution, not speaking the language of balance of military power on the battlefield between regime and opposition forces. Even when the discussion falls under strengthening the moderate armed opposition in the face of the extremist opposition that has stormed the battlefield in Syria, there is no agreed strategy among those who support the Syrian opposition.
There is clearly some retreat in the stances taken by Arab countries that had once represented pillars of support for the Syrian opposition, either because they have reached the conclusion that the Arab strategy had failed before the triumph of the strategy of the Russian-Iranian-Chinese axis, which also includes Hezbollah alongside the Syrian regime; or because they have reached the conclusion that the United States, along with Britain, France, and the other Western countries, has decided that its own interests requires handing the issue of Syria over to Iran, for reasons that fall under the considerations of negotiations over the nuclear issue.
It is too early to say that such a Grand Bargain has already matured, because those who are party to it - Russia and Iran - are still demanding more. They consider that there is a great deal of space to obtain more from the West, and in particular from President Obama, who really wants to reach bargains of understanding whatever it costs him, in terms of backing down and submitting to one "insult" after another. Indeed, the notion directing Russia and Iran's strategy is that Barack Obama wants to be rescued from getting implicated in Syria and to be saved from having to carry out his pledges of carrying out a military strike against Syria and of preventing Iran militarily from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Russia is very much at ease with its return to wielding influence in the Middle East through the American gateway, instead of through confrontation or competition with the United States. This is why it has agreed to return the Syrian issue to the Security Council, a move which has come under Russian conditions and within a Russian strategy, not out of submission to American demands. Russia today has proven that it was capable of imposing its dictates in the Arab region through its alliance with Iran, through the strategy of defying the United States, and through clearly informing Western countries that they remain an auxiliary to the relationship between Russia and the United States, and that they have not become a driving force. This certainly requires Arab countries to return to the strategy-drawing board to decide who they are and what the perspectives are of their contribution to forging the future of Arab-Russian relations, Arab-American relations, and Arab-Iranian relations.
The overall climate at the United Nations during the session of the General Assembly this week has fallen between, on the one hand, the desire to put a stop to the bloodshed in Syria within any kind of bargain, and on the other, anger at the bargains being discussed at the expense of the principle of holding to account those who have contributed to creating this tragedy. There is a new kind of realism that has exposed the West's negligence and its failure to cling to the principles it had claimed to hold. There is also, on the other hand, harsh criticism of the strategies adopted by the Arabs, which have resulted in failure with regard to the suffering of the Syrian people, as well as of the opposite strategies that have supported Damascus, in particular those of Russia and Iran.
Syria has imposed itself on the priorities of the current session of the General Assembly, and yet the discussions that have taken place have not brought Syria and neighboring countries any reassuring decisions or news. A survey of the prevalent climate indicates that a decisive outcome, politically or militarily, remains distant, and that, although small bargains are ongoing, the Grand Bargain has not yet matured. The Security Council will be issuing a resolution on the chemical issue, but it will not be under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would automatically authorize military action. Russia would have thereby hijacked the US President's decision to direct a military strike if he saw fit to do so and wished it to have the blessing of the UN. But the US President - if he wished to do so and truly sought to exercise his authority - can resort to a military strike whenever he wants. The fact of the matter is that he never did and does not want to. But the question is: what will he do with his declaration from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly that the Syrian President cannot regain his legitimacy and that it will not be possible to restore the situation to what it had been before the war erupted in Syria?
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, in an interview to Al-Hayat (published on Thursday), expressed his belief that the agreement on chemical disarmament represents mere "relief that everyone needs," that everyone is in a "crisis," that the West wants to reach a settlement with Iran "under any circumstances," and that the Iranian nuclear issue has been as important as the Syrian crisis in discussions between nations in New York - and this is no coincidence. He also said that he expects the crisis in Syria to go on for years of fierce fighting and suffering, while the parties concerned engage in "crisis management" instead of putting forward solutions. And what he said has been repeated by many of those who have followed international talks on the Syrian crisis.
Indeed, the handshake that did not deserve to keep us distracted for weeks and the bargain that has not yet matured will take many months to be achieved. The outcome of the matter is that the truce-seeking relationship between the United States and Iran passes across a torn-up Syria just as does the relationship between the United States and Russia. Indeed, Syria has become an open arena for forging bilateral relations between world powers and regional powers, in a terrifying diminution of and disregard for the Syrian people, who are paying an exorbitant price.