If there was one ‘take away’ in foreign policy news recently it came on Oct 30th: The Americans and Iranians were negotiating at the same table on a non-nuclear related issue for the first time ever.
The meeting in Vienna, involving several other powers, was about Syria. It ended with only an agreement to keep talking. But the real significance is not only that this is the beginning of what is going to be an arduous protracted process stretching well into next year, but that this is how things are going to be in the Middle East for the foreseeable future – the Iranians and Americans discussing what to do.
The Saudis are unhappy about this state of affairs, but it is a natural progression from the Iranian nuclear deal signed this summer. Many analysts pour scorn on the idea that the deal could lead to the ‘grand bargain’ between the USA and Iran. The W&Y believes that each side is well aware that they will never be friends so long as the Ayatollahs remain in charge in Tehran, but that there is an awful lot of business they can do whilst still remaining ideologically hostile to one another. Given that both countries are engaged militarily in both Iraq and Syria, they have a lot to talk, and indeed co-operate about.
By Nov 2nd the Iranians were threatening not to return to the Syrian talks if they become ‘un-constructive’ but this for now is rhetoric aimed at getting in a pre-emptive blame attack against Saudi Arabia in case things go wrong farther down the line .
The talks will certainly get sticky. The Russians have changed the game, shoring up President Assad, and effectively ensuring that Iran was invited to the table, but there are limits to how much the anti-Assad factions will bend. In Vienna there was a tacit acceptance that Assad will not be standing down until a political process of transition is achieved, but if Russia goes on to insist he has a permanent role – the talks will break down. It is more likely that having maneuvered themselves into a ‘front and centre’ position the Russians will be willing to see Assad go as long as whoever replaces him will allow them to keep their naval base and influence on the Mediterranean coast.
Russia, Oman, and Iran are all still in the frame as potential places of exile and asylum for Assad at some point in the next two years.
We have entered the ‘fighting and talking’ phase. This does not mean the fighting will end next year, but it does mean it might.