There is slow movement, adagio not andante, on two fronts, Syria and the Iran nuclear issue:

  1. Syrian opposition leader Moaz al Khatib’s proposal for conditional talks with the regime has elicited some interest on the part of Syria, Iran and Russia.
  2. The P5+1 (that’s the US, UK, France, Russia and China + Germany) have agreed to meet with Iran to discuss nuclear issues February 25 in Kazakhstan.  The US and Iran are indicating willingness to meet bilaterally as well.

There is no breakthrough here.  These are small steps forward at the glacial pace that often characterizes diplomatic moves.  But given how frozen things seemed on both fronts even a few days ago, this is progress.

On Syria, Khatib’s proposal was a personal one, made initially on his Facebook page without approval of his Coalition.  It reflects in part the view of the National Coordination Committee, which is an inside Syria opposition group that has long wanted to start a dialogue with the regime.  The expatriate opposition was not pleased with the proposition.  My guess is that the Americans are okay with it, even though they continue to insist that Bashar al Asad step aside.

Dialogue could lead to a split in the regime between hawks who want to continue the crackdown and doves who see promise in talking with the opposition.  Of course it could also lead to a similar split in the opposition, with hardline Islamists opting to continue the fighting and relative moderates interested in talking.  The key issue is whether Bashar is prepared to leave power.  If not, dialogue with the regime is likely to become a snare and a delusion, wrecking the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces that Khatib leads.

On Iran’s nuclear program, the outline of a deal is increasingly clear:

  • limits on uranium enrichment (e.g., an end to Iranian enrichment above 20%, shipment out of the country of stockpile uranium enriched beyond 5%, and likely also something restricting plutonium production, which has not been much of a public issue so far);
  • a serious, verifiable and irreversible commitment not to develop nuclear weapons (including “coming clean” on past nuclear weapons-related activities);
  • an end to American and multilateral economic and financial sanctions.

It is the sequencing of the many steps that need to be taken to get to this result that has caused so much difficulty.  The Americans and Europeans want the nuclear commitments implemented up front.  The Iranians want sanctions relief first.  Lack of trust makes compromise difficult, but it would not seem completely out of reach, provided Iran is prepared to make a serious and verifiable commitment not to develop nuclear weapons.

What we’ve got here are two instances of coercive diplomacy, where outside powers are bringing pressure to bear in order to end one regime and to curtail fundamentally the options available to another one.   The odds of success are not high, since the regimes involved have a good deal at stake (and are allied with each other).  Bashar al Asad would have to come to the conclusion that his life is worth more than his position.  Tehran would have to come to the conclusion that regime survival is more likely if it accepts limits on its nuclear program than if it rejects them.

On the other side, the key ingredient is credibility.

The Americans and Europeans need to convince Bashar that they are fully committed to end his rule.  To do so, they need to back more fully and visibly Khatib’s Coalition, making it a serious governing alternative to the Syrian regime.  This is more important now than arms supplies, which seem to be reaching the rebellion in substantial if not overwhelming quantities.

Washington and Brussels also need to convince Tehran that they will tighten sanctions further if there is no nuclear deal.  And Washington needs to make the threat of military force more credible than it appeared at former Senator Hagel’s confirmation hearing last week.

Even  if talks with the Syrian regime and with the Iranians begin soon, at this pace we still have a long way to go before we can be certain of acceptable outcomes on either front.  But slow movement is better than none.

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