Page 2 of 2 Obama moves on Iran, Putin keeps Syria
By M K Bhadrakumar
A diplomatic pirouette
Where Russian calculations can go wrong is in the confidence that Moscow has veto power in the Security Council. But, on the contrary, there is a widespread indignation today about the credentials of the council's five permanent members (P5) - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. This has become the leitmotif of the speeches by the world statesmen at the ongoing UN general assembly. To quote John Key, New Zealand prime minister,
We now seem to have a practice whereby the permanent members can not only block council actions through the veto. They also appear to have privileged access to information and can stop the council from meeting if it does not suit their collective purposes.
Key told the media that the Security Council's functioning is so
farcical that the P5 diplomats haggle and then reach some consensus only to turn to Twitter first to relay it before even sensitizing the non-permanent members of the Security Council.
In sum, the incredible diplomatic pirouette performed by the US and Russia over Syria has largely enabled these two great powers for the present to escape a tricky situation. The US has been extirpated from the use of force (which it probably wasn't looking for in the first instance), while Russia no more could be lampooned in the West as "Mr Nyet". To be sure, there has been a marriage of convenience that resulted in the Security Council resolution.
But then, has Russia assumed a disproportionate share of responsibility to nurture the offspring? Consider the following.
Obama is clearly taking a back seat on Syria for the present and concentrating on the Iran question, which is fraught with profound, direct and long-term consequences for the US' vital interests and the core concerns and those of its allies in the West and in the Middle East - in a way that Syria never has been or can be.
So, is Russia holding a can of worms? Difficult to say, but the danger is very much there.
On balance, the US has allowed the Russian side to prevail at the UN Security Council. Prima facie, the prospect of a US-led military strike is receding so fast and so far to the background that it cannot be taken seriously anymore as in Obama's consideration zone.
It seems Russian diplomacy has scored an extraordinary success, which, anyway, is how it is being perceived by the international opinion, and in turn it embellishes Russia's "arrival" as a global power on the Middle Eastern theatre.
However, on closer look the danger arises that the Russians could be pressing ahead with their impressive diplomatic successes over Syria in recent weeks and might well be outstripping the rest of the world community already, including its best friend China. This is one thing.
Secondly, Russian officials have offered that the Moscow-led Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) is willing to deploy forces in Syria to provide security cover for personnel from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and also to guard the chemical weapon sites. The CSTO is a fig leaf; it'll be veritably a Russian contingent. Now, what if the Syrian rebel fighters draw Russian blood at some point?
Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who mentored these fighters, especially the Salafist fighters, are having a bad taste in their mouth at the sight of Russia being on a roll on a turf that spy chief Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar Sultan fancied as his playpen.
In the womb of time
Not that it is a trap being set for the Kremlin by Washington, but sometimes it so happens that what may appear grit and decisiveness to push enterprises with all good intentions in diplomacy may end up having tragic consequences. At the end of the day, through the coming months, Russia is pitted against the "jihad" in Syria.
Meanwhile, Obama is moving on. After giving the Russians a relatively free hand to exercise the privilege of walking through the mine fields of Syria, Obama is able to concentrate on a much more productive front that will ultimately impact on the politics of the Middle East in a far more significant way than the fate of Bashar Al-Assad - the United States' normalization with Iran.
The speed with which Obama moved last week on Iran is simply breathtaking. Following up on Obama's UN General Assembly speech, Secretary of State John Kerry met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, and seemed to have discussed a one-year timeline for a road map to sort out the nuclear issue.
And, during the Kerry-Zarif pow-vow, a wonderful idea was born that Obama and Rouhani might as well have a phone conversation. Which, of course, they eventually got around to doing just before Rouhani left to catch the long flight to Tehran.
What stands out from Obama's account of the historic phone call as well as from Rouhani's is that the tree of hostility between the US and Iran is about to shed its fiery red leaves like the autumn trees.
Rouhani turned to Twitter as he was leaving American soil after the 15-minute phone conversation with Obama. This is his version on Twitter:
@BarackObama to @HassanRouhani: I express my respect for you and ppl of #Iran. I'm convinced that relations between Iran and US will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on #nuclear file, other issues such as #Syria will certainly be positively affected. I wish you a safe and pleasant journey and apologize if you're experiencing the [exasperating] traffic in #NYC.
@HassanRouhani to @BarackObama: In regards to #nuclear issue, with political #will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter. We're hopeful about what we will see from P5+1[the P5 plus Germany] and your govt in particular in coming weeks and months. I express my gratitude for your #hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr President.
@BarackObama to @HassanRouhani: Thank you, Khodahafez. [literally, Persian for "God be with you"]
Make no mistake, Obama hopes to return to the Syrian question at a future date - holding Rouhani's hand. Until then, it's all - well, mostly - Russia's privilege to hold the can of worms.
The fact that Obama hasn't cared to speak to Putin regarding Syria in this entire month since G-20 summit in St Petersburg on September 5-6, but touched on Syria in his very first conversation with Rouhani gives away what lies in the womb of time. It not only gives away the drift of the US' priorities, but also exposes the poor alchemy of US-Russian relations.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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