On his arrival in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday Jan. 22, for the World Economic Forum, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani played down any expectations of the Geneva 2 peace talks on Syria achieving any real progress in “countering terrorism,” because, he explained, represented there are countries which “fervently support terrorists in war-torn Syria.”
Unlike the other participants, the Iranian president was quick to draw a connection between Davos and the Syrian conference which also opened that day in Montreux, another Swiss town.
On the first day of Geneva 2, US Secretary of State John Kerry said very firmly: "I believe as we begin to… get into this process that it will become clear there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he is going to be part of that future. It is not going to happen."
He said this in the knowledge that no one at the table other than the Syrian government delegation had the power to bring about changes in the war situation, and its leader, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem dismissed the US Secretary’s proposition there and then.
No one but the Syrian people will choose their president, he said.
By comparison, Ahmed al-Jarba, leader of the only opposition group present, the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition, could not claim to speak for any of the major rebel military forces fighting in Syria.
He may accept the proposals put before the conference for local ceasefires, prisoner exchanges and essential supply routes to the people trapped in besieged areas, but his words won’t resonate where it counts, in the battle arena.
Geneva 2 is left dragging behind events in Syria
Unlike al-Jarba, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal has plenty of clout.
Through its intelligence services, run by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia controls the powerful Syrian Islamist Front.
But the Front was not ordered by Riyadh to send representatives to Montreux. The most Kerry can hope for is that the Saudis will tell their protégées not to impede the implementation of any resolutions reached at Geneva 2.
In any case, by the time the conference convened, it was already overtaken by events on the ground, where President Bashar Assad and his military, far from being willing to step aside for a transitional regime, were constantly gaining strength against rebel forces and seizing more ground.
To understand how far the deliberations in Geneva are disconnected from happenings in Syria, it is worth looking at the fate of a groundbreaking deal forged between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last year for the elimination of Assad’s chemical arsenal.
This issue has more or less dropped off the world’s front pages, possibly because so little has been achieved.
According to DEBKA Weekly's military and intelligence sources, just 27 tons of poison materials of all types have been so far been removed from Syria, out of an estimated total of 1,200 tons.
At this rate, their complete removal would take up to three more years. And so, when Barack Obama leaves office as president, the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons will still be unfinished.
Iran again denies promising to dismantle anything
A similar situation prevails on the nuclear negotiating track with Iran, another of John Kerry's great foreign policy initiatives for solving the world’s foremost causes of discord by diplomacy.
On Wednesday Jan. 22 Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flatly denied once again – this time to CNN – that Iran had ever agreed to dismantle any part of its nuclear infrastructure – contrary to what Obama and Kerry have been saying.
Zarif said: "The White House version both underplays the concessions and overplays Iranian commitment. And I'm not interested in that. I'm simply saying, why don't we all stick to what we agreed? Why do we need to produce different texts?”
He went on to note that the terminology is different. “The White House tries to portray it as basically a dismantling of Iran's nuclear program. That is the word they use time and again. And I urge you to read the entire text. If you find a single, a single word that even closely resembles dismantling or could be defined as dismantling in the entire text, then I would take back my comment.
"What Iran has agreed is not to enrich above 5 percent. We did not agree to dismantle anything,” Zarif stressed.
The Iranian foreign minister’s advice to skeptics to read the full text is not feasible, since the White House continues to block full publication of the accord for the implementation of the interim nuclear agreement since it was signed in Geneva on January 11
(See DEBKA Weekly 619 of Jan. 17: The Unpublished 30 Pages: Mid East Spies Race for the Hidden Clauses of US-Iranian Nuclear Package).
US and Iranian officials optimistic. Kerry ready to back off Mid East peace
If Zarif is taken at his word, it doesn’t matter which version is the correct one – the American or the Iranian – because Tehran is very clear about refusing to dismantle any part of its nuclear infrastructure. Both President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif are painfully aware that signing on to this would result in being summarily booted out of office by Iran’s fiercely anti-diplomacy Revolutionary Guards. And neither is ready to commit political suicide.
(See the article in this issue on the campaign to oust President Rouhani).
But neither are the administration in Washington or members of the Rouhani government in Tehran deterred all the same from referring optimistically to the prospect of reaching a good final nuclear accord once the terms of the interim deal are implemented.
Their optimism is not shared by any serious US or European experts.
Gary Samore, Barack Obama’s adviser on arms control until last year, and now at Harvard’s Belfer Centre, points out that neither side has given away any of its big bargaining chips. Most of the actions taken are reversible; the trickiest issues have been kicked down the road.
This confirms Zarif’s version of the deal as correct: Iran is not being asked to start dismantling its nuclear program. Samore goes on to say: "Mr. Obama says that 'Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon.' In truth, no agreement can permanently remove Iran's ability to get a bomb if it really wants one."
As for Kerry’s third diplomatic initiative, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Kerry for once missed a scheduled visit this week – his 12th? – to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
DEBKA Weekly's sources disclose that the Secretary of State is closer than ever before to backing off. He no longer talks about a final-status accord – or even the framework on which he worked so hard until it was summarily rejected by the Palestinians.
Never at a loss for a neat catchword, Kerry has seemingly limited his effort to presenting the two sides with “a paper of references.”