Ignoring Iran when it comes to Syrian talks is a mistake. Maybe policies that apply only to Iran win plaudits at cocktail parties inside the Beltway, but they sound ridiculous in much of the rest of the world.
It's a great shame that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's efforts to include Iran in the "Geneva II" Syria peace conference collapsed. The New York Times editorial board chided gently that it is "unfortunate that some diplomatic solution could not have been found to include Iran," but it's more than unfortunate. It's a missed opportunity to help stop pointless bloodshed.
Whatever "diplomatic missteps" Ban may or may not have made, Ban deserves credit for taking a risk to try to do something that is obviously very important for diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war to succeed. Ending, or even mitigating, the Syrian civil war is going to be hard enough without trying to exclude crucial players for stupid reasons. Excluding Iran because it won't publicly sign up in advance for the U.S. interpretation of the Geneva I communiqué is stupid.
Obviously, Secretary of State John Kerry faces constraints. He doesn't get to sit off in a room by himself and decide what to do without taking Saudi Arabia and Qatar into account; in addition, the United States is somewhat constrained by stupid things it has done in the past. Shifting away from a stupid position in public can be awkward. You're likely to be challenged: "Hey, are you backing down from your previous position? Are you admitting that your past policy was stupid?" Nobody looks forward to that.
Moreover, while much of the world is saying: "Hey, you're talking to Iran about its nuclear file - why can't we talk to Iran about Syria?" it's understandable that US officials might see the situation differently because of "domestic political constraints." If you're a US official, you might think, "Hey, give me a break. My butt is already on fire for talking to Iran about its nuclear file. Cut me some slack."
But those of us who have the luxury of not working for the State Department should be clear: The policy of excluding Iran from Syria diplomacy is stupid, and for diplomacy to mitigate and end the Syrian civil war to succeed, the stupid policy must fall.
It makes no logical sense to exclude Iran from formal efforts to mitigate and end the conflict, just because it won't publicly pre-commit to an endgame that excludes Assad. The Russian government won't publicly pre-commit to an endgame that excludes Assad, and it is the key co-sponsor of the formal diplomatic effort. The Syrian government, certainly, won't publicly pre-commit to an endgame that excludes Assad, and it is obviously a key participant in the Geneva talks.
It makes no logical sense to exclude Iran because we don't like Iran's policy in Syria. Lots of people have done bad things in Syria. Lots of people are doing bad things in Syria. Lots of people will continue to do bad things in Syria if there's no diplomatic agreement to do otherwise. The point of a diplomatic process is to get the people doing bad things in Syria around a table to discuss under what conditions they might agree to stop doing some or all of the bad things that they're doing and to use their influence to help stop other people from doing bad things. Again: there's no bad thing that Iran has done in Syria that Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar haven't also done. They've all helped to send guns in for more pointless killing, and no one is going to agree to stop arming the government in the absence of an agreement to stop arming the rebels. It's quite silly to say that only Iran will be excluded from diplomacy as punishment for intervening in the civil war, when everyone else in the neighborhood has done the same.
Maybe inside the Beltway policies that apply only to Iran win plaudits at cocktail parties. But in much of the rest of the world, they sound ridiculous. As Russian President Putin remarked in another context: "as they say in the countryside, some people's cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are what they are; they have a lot of oil money to throw around, and that gives them substantial political power. But we could try to do something about the "domestic political constraints." If you'd like John Kerry to know that you think he should drop the stupid policy of excluding Iran from the Syria talks, you can tell him so here.