Iran returns to ‘Vienna Talks’ – as peacemaker

October 29, 2015 10:49 AM (UTC+8)

 

Tehran’s acceptance of the invitation extended via Moscow to join the expanded format of the multi-party talks on Syria was never in serious doubt. The only remaining curiosity was regarding the composition of the Iranian delegation – in short, Iran’s approach to the talks as such.

While the outcome ...
While it is too early to speak of the outcome of Vienna talks, the advantage goes to Iran

The word from Tehran is that, unsurprisingly, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif will attend the talks. However, the interesting part is that he will lead a high-powered team – comprising three deputy foreign ministers. They are Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-e-Ravanchi.

Indeed, that is an optimal line-up. Who are they? Well, all three are brilliant career diplomats, the best and the brightest in Tehran. (Zarif, too, by the way belonged to the Iranian diplomatic service.) Abdollahian is well-known as the top ‘hands-on’ diplomat in Tehran dealing with Syria who is in charge of the Middle East region, including Iran’s highly complicated relations with Saudi Arabia.

Unlike his teammates in Zarif’s delegation, Abdollahian is quintessentially what we can call a ‘Arabist’. Believe it or not, he never ever handled any responsibility as a diplomat in the foreign ministry at Tehran other than Middle East affairs, and his only stint as ambassador was as envoy to Bahrain in the second half of the last decade.

Abdollahian would be the envy of any foreign service in the non-Arab world in his sheer grasp of the Syrian problem and expertise on the Arab Middle East.

Now, Abbas Araghchi is also a familiar face indeed – as Iran’s ‘nuclear negotiator’ by Zarif’s right hand side at the talks with the P5+1. He holds charge of legal and international affairs in the foreign ministry. He is a ‘multilateralist’ and an interesting intellectual who has doubled up as think tanker, writer and so on in his career.

Curiously enough, he was trained in Britain for his doctorate on Islamic thought. Araghchi also had a stint in Saudi Arabia as Iran’s Charges d’Affaires to the Organization of Islamic Conference.

Aragchi is a generalist par excellence who could easily handle the policy planning division in any foreign office. But he is of course a suave negotiator with an extraordinary flair for details, as the nuclear talks showed. Araghchi gets along fine with the western diplomats.

Ravanchi, again, holds charge of European and American affairs in the Iranian foreign ministry. (By the way, like Zarif, he also received his university education in the US; and, holds a PhD in political science from Switzerland.) Ravanchi was also by Zarif’s side in the P5+1 talks regarding the nuclear issue.

What explains such a highly professional Iranian delegation at the Vienna Talks? Obviously, Tehran intends to negotiate seriously. Iran is wading into the multilateral diplomatic pond in Vienna with the intent to swim, not just to float around in a rubber dinghy for pleasure.

As a matter of fact, the US Secretary of State John Kerry was spot on when he said while addressing the Carnegie on Wednesday that as he arrives in Vienna later today (Thursday), he is getting the sense that the international community has in hand “the most promising opportunity for a political opening” on Syria.

By the way, wasn’t it fascinating that while Kerry could not resist the temptation to take a (gentle) swipe at the Russian intentions in Syria, he would not say a single unkind word about Iran’s activities? And, yet, Iran announced only earlier this week that it was sending more military reinforcements to support President Bashar Al-Assad.

Indeed, Vienna will be the setting for a riveting diplomatic battle of wits between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to win the Iranian heart and mind. Make no mistake, it’s a situation tailor-made for the Iranian diplomats.

It’s too early to speak of the outcome, but all that can be said for the moment is that the advantage goes to Tehran while safeguarding its core interests and vital concerns over Syria as well as finessing a multi-vector foreign policy attuned to the post-nuclear deal era.

The Vienna talks this time around are not going to be the cliff-hanger that the negotiations over the nuclear issue used to be. There is no angst in the Iranian mind today. Its integration with the international community is well under way and the Iranian diplomats are savvy enough to develop synergy between the Syrian track and Tehran’s agenda to build up ties with Europe and America.

It is useful to recall that Zarif was the US’ key interlocutor at the crucial Bonn conference on Afghanistan in December 2001. He literally helped the US to usher in an interim government (under the relatively obscure figure at that time by the name Hamid Karzai.)

According to Ambassador James Dobbins, it was Zarif who negotiated with the Northern Alliance leader Younus Qanooni on behalf of the Americans and overcame their resistance to the government led by Buhanuddin Rabbani stepping down and making way for Karzai.

Without doubt, the talks on Syria provide Tehran an opportunity to become a ‘normal’ country. This is where the Saudis are needlessly panicking. Iran is interested in normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, but not on the latter’s terms. And it is going to be increasingly futile for Saudi Arabia to sustain a regional policy that feeds into its obsessive rivalry with Iran – or a regional policy that needs an Iranian alibi for problems of its own making.

Equally, for Israel, the time is fast approaching for a rethink on its lifestyle to live by the sword till eternity. The ground beneath its feet is dramatically shifting and Israel faces the danger of being stranded, despite being a lively democracy and by far the region’s most prosperous and innovative economy. A more optimal use of diplomacy is the answer.

Thus, in every sense, we are at a defining moment as the top diplomats of the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE meet in Vienna – informally today (Oct 29) evening and formally tomorrow.

Incidentally, where is China? Of course, China is preoccupied with the visit by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel starting today, who is paying only her eighth visit to China in all these 10 years as chancellor.

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