The UN and Iran: Friend or Foe? Keep Them Close…

Posted on January 29, 2014 by


By withdrawing its invitation to Iran to join the Syria peace talks, the UN has missed a golden opportunity that carried very little actual risk. After initially inviting Iranian delegates to the Geneva II Conference the UN rescinded its invitation after angry responses from the US and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). Iran supports the current regime, including President Bashar al-Assad, but that doesn’t mean that the UN was right to uninvite them.

Let’s set aside the idea that all sides of an argument should be heard and that all relevant parties should in reality be present at an international conference. This doesn’t happen in practice. The West’s anger at the invitation to Iran is actually very short-sighted. Sure they don’t agree on what should happen to Assad, but this is just one issue. The larger effect would have been, and still can be, positive.

Look at Iran’s situation. They’ve just reached an interim deal on their nuclear energy programme with the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1). In return they received a lessening of economic sanctions to the tune of $4.2bn in oil revenue. The P5+1 were very clear, however, that this relief is reversible if Iran fails to keep up with its end of the bargain. This being said, it’s not a giant leap to suggest that if Iran makes a nuisance of itself on the world stage (or rather, annoys the West by backing Assad too far) further reprieves from economic measures might be slow, limited, or non-existent.

With this in mind it’s safe to assume that had Iran been present at Geneva II its representatives would probably have been instructed by President Rouhani to maintain their support for the Syrian government but to be very careful in doing so. Iran would have felt better for the measure of trust the West put in them, and the West would have profited by tempering one of Assad’s staunchest allies. The potential doesn’t stop there, however. If Iran is engaged on an international diplomatic level, providing that Rouhani’s moderate administration are left alone by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, then the result could be a diplomatic masterstroke in the eyes of the US and others.

While much of this can be construed as blue-sky-thinking, which of course it is, there is a logic to it. Iran has the potential to revive its former status as a major regional, and indeed global presence. It certainly won’t be a return to the cordial relations of the mid-twentieth century it enjoyed with Israel, but a more internationally involved Iran would benefit all parties. For Iran it might mean a quicker return to economic stability, and for the West the opportunity to raise other issues, for example Iranian assistance and training of militia for the Syrian government, and relations with Lebanese Hezbollah.

The Geneva II talks finished yesterday (28th January) and Iran was not there, but there will be many more conferences before there is calm in Syria. The UN might want to reconsider whether it wants Iran left out of those as well.

CC Image Courtesy of Floris Oosterveld, Flickr