Rouhani grabs strategic advantage over Kerry

US is simply reacting to events without any coherent strategy and little contact with the reality on the ground

A busy week at Davos showed how Iran has grabbed the strategic initiative from the Americans and is using it to great effect — forcing Washington to show how much it lacks any strategy and is simply reacting to events.

The successful restart of talks between Iran and the international community over the nuclear issue was not due to anything the Americans did, even if they are pointing to their sanctions as forcing the Iranians to the table. In fact, the shift only came because Hassan Rouhani won the elections and decided to start talking.

On Syria, the American were seriously wrong-footed by the Russians and Iranians and are now forced to focus on the Geneva II talks. The American allies in the opposition have collapsed leaving them with very little contact with the reality on the ground, in contrast to the Iranians who are working closely with the Bashar Al Assad regime and are able to influence what happens in the battlefield.

President Rouhani’s dramatic speech to the World Economic Forum was a breakthrough for Iran as he made his pitch to the international community to be re-admitted to normal dialogue, even if it contained few surprises on either the nuclear issue or Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s counterblast the next day was full of threatening bluster, which did not offer an alternative vision, but just focused on the tactical requirements that the Obama administration needed to take the negotiations forward. Later in the week, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, was able to dominate a debate on Syria, when he was able to get away with insisting that Iran wanted all foreign forces to leave Syria, despite his own government being responsible for providing Al Assad with substantial military backing.

Rouhani used his speech to remind everyone that his government had made it clear to the Iranian hardliners that he would use the economic argument to rejoin the global world to overcome any political or ideological issues they might raise. He said he wanted Iran to be among the Top 10 gross domestic product nations within a decade and said that “the groundwork to do this will be at the heart of my presidency. We will overcome all political obstacles on this road”. Rouhani took the opportunity to remind the world that while he can deliver his hardliners, he is not sure that President Barack Obama has the same authority in Washington. “I do not see any impediment to reaching an agreement with the P5+1 [US, Britain, France, Russia, China + Germany),” Rouhani said, “although one possible impediment is a lack of will from other parties [like the US] and it is also possible that they can be pressured not to come to an agreement.”

Like all Iranians, Rouhani was very tough on Iran’s right to have nuclear technology and was clear that Iran would not stop “pursuing its search for peaceful nuclear technology”.

Kerry was reduced to repeating his mantra that any success in the nuclear talks would not be based on trust, but on testing. Therefore, he focused firmly on the details of how to set up a tough verification programme, without offering any strategic development of how the relationship might develop. He listed site after site that needed to be checked and various Iranian actions that needed to be tested, but he did not offer an alternative American strategy to the vision Rouhani had outlined.

The way Washington is stuck in the rut of negotiations was also painfully clear when Kerry moved on to give an overview of what was happening Syria. He seemed totally detached from the grim reality of the civil war when he stuck to the details of how an interim administration might be established through the Geneva II talks that were running concurrently to the Davos meeting. He launched a scathing personal attack on Al Assad, saying he was responsible for “torturing prisoners, killing university students with Scud missiles and gassing families — including sleeping women, children and grandparents”.

The intensity of this attack was odd, given that the US is trying to broker talks between Al Assad’s regime and the opposition. It may be that by being so aggressive, Kerry was trying to placate the opposition figures at the talks who were already jumpy at the on-off invitation to Iran and the failure of the government representatives to agree that Al Assad should go. But the vacuity of the Geneva II talks was made all the more clear when Zarif was able to tell the Al Arabiya debate that Iran supported all foreign forces leaving Syria, without having his bluff seriously called.

It seems that Iran is working with the Syrians and Russians to successfully bolster the regime’s forces on the ground, while the Americans are watching their allies in the Free Syrian Army collapse.

The Iranians were able to simply hold their ground, knowing that they have the strength on the battlefield; while the Americans were forced to focus on the Geneva II talks, laying down a path for an interim regime that may never happen. The fact that Kerry did not mention any way to reach a ceasefire must be profoundly depressing for the State Department’s hopes of regaining the initiative. Gulf News

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