Calling Iran’s bluff?

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Two alliances sat down last week in Vienna to discuss how to end the ongoing human tragedy that is Syria’s civil war. The stated objective was to bring the international community together to help orchestrate an end to a conflict that is being fought by multiple parties on multiple fronts and that has led to some 200,000 dead and more than 3 million refugees.

On the one side is the United States, the European Union and the Sunni Gulf monarchies, who long ago called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the dictator whose violent response to peaceful protests in 2011 led to the destruction of his people and his country. On the other side is Russia and Iran, who, like Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, are invested in Assad’s continued hold on power, at least until they can arrange a replacement who will maintain power among the ruling Alawites.

But what was Iran doing at the table — particularly given historical U.S. opposition to such involvement? According to some, the U.S. concession is a reflection of the impact of the Russia-Iran alliance in Syria.

That alliance is evidence of both countries’ deep involvement in the conflict. So, if it makes sense to have one of them at the table, it makes sense to have both. According to others, the decision to include Iran is evidence that the United States is again being reactive when it comes to developments in the Syrian civil war. Further support was lent to this view when, over the weekend, the White House announced the deployment of American special forces to Kurdish-held areas in the northeast part of Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, not against the Assad regime.

Secretary of State John Kerry said that by admitting Iran to the talks, the world community will be able to call Tehran’s bluff. That may be the case. But it isn’t clear how Iran will be singled out for performance expectations in this international effort. For now, at least, the inclusion of Iran in an international diplomatic forum will enhance that regime’s legitimacy and prestige and strengthen it as it continues to threaten Israel and vies for hegemony in the Middle East, all at a time when the focus should be on Iran’s compliance with the recent nuclear deal.

We worry about this elevation of Iran’s prestige and credibility. And we await the administration’s clarification of its plan to bring peace to Syria and remove Assad from power.

If recent history is any guide, we might be waiting a long time.

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