Policy Shift? Kerry Indicates a Possible Role for Iran at Syria Conference

January 6, 2014 - 5:23 AM

kerry-iran

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations in September 2013. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the possibility that Iran could have some role at the upcoming Syria peace conference even if it does not accept the 2012 agreement which the gathering is meant to implement.

Asked Sunday about the possibility of Iran taking part in the “Geneva II” conference, scheduled to begin on January 22, Kerry repeated the administration’s often-stated stance that any participant would have to endorse the so-called Geneva I communiqué.

Drawn up by world powers in June 2012, the document called for the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria on the basis of “mutual consent” between representatives of the regime and the opposition rebellion fighting to topple it.

Iran rejects calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad, its close ally, to step down, and so has not accepted the Geneva I communiqué.

“Iran could participate very easily if they would simply accept publicly the Geneva I premise on which Geneva II is based,” Kerry said. “If Iran doesn’t support that, it’s very difficult to see how they’re going to be ‘a ministerial partner’ in the process.”

But then he went further.

“Now, could they contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them conceivably to weigh in? Can their mission that is already in Geneva be there in order to help the process? It may be that there are ways that that could happen,” he said.

But that has to be determined by the [U.N.] secretary-general and it has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves,” he added.  “I think that we’re happy to have Iran be helpful. Everybody is happy to have Iran be helpful.”

The U.S. and other Western governments have long characterized Tehran as a major part of the problem in the Syrian crisis, rather than potentially part of the solution. Iran has provided Assad with significant military support, and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah has also been deeply involved in the civil war, fighting on the side of the regime.

At the same time Russia, another Assad ally, has been arguing in favor of Iranian participation at Geneva II ever since Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last May first announced plans for the conference.

Kerry in his comments on Sunday deferred to U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on the question of Iran playing a part in Geneva – the U.N. serves as the conference convenor – but Ban has already made it clear that he supports Iran’s participation.

“Iran should be invited to the conference in Geneva,” he said early last month. “I believe that Iran is one of the countries that can play a very important role.”

Ban’s special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is also on record as favoring Iranian participation.

Kerry’s musing on a possible “sidelines” role for Iran even if it does not accept Geneva I was the first time a senior administration official has made such a suggestion, and it was not clear whether it signaled a subtle policy shift.

Last fall Kerry in an apparently unscripted comment raised the possibility that Assad could avoid U.S. military action – which had been threatened in response to deadly chemical attack in August – if he agreed to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile.

The State Department afterwards described the comment as “rhetorical and hypothetical” rather than a serious proposal, but Russia seized the opportunity and prodded Assad to agree to give up the weapons.