Did Russian Airstrikes Force U.S. to Include Iran in Syria Talks?

Patrick Goodenough | October 30, 2015 | 4:31am EDT
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Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Vienna, Austraia on October 29, 2015 for multilateral talks on the Syrian crisis, the first of their kind to have Iranian participation. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

(CNSNews.com) – State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday Russia’s military intervention in Syria had not compelled the administration’s shift in policy on letting Iran participate in multilateral talks on ending the conflict.

“Is the U.S. forced to include Iran in the process?” Kirby was asked at his daily briefing, one day before widely anticipated talks in Vienna to which Iran has been invited for the first time.

“This isn’t about being forced either to include or exclude anybody,” he replied. “If you’re trying to imply that Russia’s military activities in Syria sort of drove us to this end, I would disabuse you of that notion right off the bat.”

Kirby said that Secretary of State John Kerry believes “now is the right time to bring Iran to the table” due to “a confluence of events, a confluence of progress made.”

However a senior State Department official told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier in the day that the military campaign launched by Moscow a month ago had played a key part in the decision to invite the Iranians to the talks.

State Department counselor Thomas Shannon, nominated to be undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the Russian airstrikes and presence of Iranian special forces fighting in Syria had “created a different kind of dynamic.”

“The Russian and Iranian presence or support for [President Bashar] Assad is nothing new, but the Russian military presence and airstrikes is something new; the presence of Iranian troops and special forces is something new, and worrisome,” he said.

“And for this reason, the secretary thought it was time to bring everybody together and effectively call their [the Iranians’] bluff” – to see whether their stated commitment to fight ISIS and terrorism was “meaningful,” Shannon said.

The U.S. has long viewed Iran as part of the problem in Syria, rather than part of the solution to the deadly conflict. Tehran has provided Assad with financial, military and moral support, and its Lebanese Shi’ite proxy Hezbollah has also been deeply involved in the fighting on the side of the regime.

For the past three years the administration has refused to countenance Iran taking part in the stop-start diplomatic process aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis.

It stated repeatedly that the condition for Iranian participation would be its endorsement of the “Geneva communique” – a 2012 document calling for the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria on the basis of “mutual consent” between regime and opposition representatives.

Iran, leery of signing up to anything that anticipates the departure of Assad, its closest regional ally, refused to agree to what it called “preconditions.”

So firm was the administration on that point, that when U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to a round of the talks in Geneva in early 2014, the State Department said he must withdraw the invitation unless Iran relented.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the time that “Iran’s explicit and public support for the full implementation of the Geneva communique” was “something Iran has never done publicly and something we have long made clear is required.”

“If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded,” she said.

Now, not only has Kerry dropped that condition, but according to Kirby on Thursday, “the secretary is pleased that they are going to be in attendance.”

“You’re not going to get at a successful political transition there in Syria that doesn’t include Iranian participation,” he said. “And that is why they’re at the meeting in Vienna.”

‘Having the arsonists trying to help put the fire out’

Kerry’s Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, reiterated on his arrival in Vienna ahead of the talks that Iran has not agreed to any pre-conditions to its participation.

“Iran is a country with power of stabilization of the region and no condition can be laid down for its presence,” he told reporters Thursday.

“There has been no prerequisite for Iran’s presence in the Vienna conference; if it were so we would never take part in the meeting.”

During Shannon’s nomination hearing on Capitol Hill, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) likened Iran’s and Russia’s participation in Friday’s talks to “having the arsonists trying to help put the fire out.”

“Bashar al-Assad has been propped up by Putin and Khamenei,” he told Shannon, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Without their help he would have been gone, in my opinion, a long time ago, and he would not have had the wherewithal to continually barrel-bomb his people and gas his own people. Are you a little concerned about having the arsonists trying to help put the fire out in the talks this weekend?”

Apart from the U.S., Russia and Iran, other participants in Friday’s talks include Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both leading supporters of the anti-Assad opposition; Iraq, whose Shi’ite-led government leans towards supporting Iran and Assad; and Egypt, which shares the Assad regime’s antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and has come out in support of the Russian airstrikes.

Neither the Assad regime nor Syrian opposition representatives will take part in the talks at this stage.

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