Shirley Williams writes: President Obama’s decision to consult Congress before taking any military action against the Syrian government offers a brief opportunity for diplomatic efforts to construct a political settlement. That decision has been welcomed by many in the Middle East, among them the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.
It is astonishing that, apart from by the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, Iran was hardly mentioned in the debates in parliament last week – given that it has a vital role in the region and is the key to a negotiated outcome. It is the most important ally that Syria has, as a recent report by the Rand corporation points out. With a population of 75 million, and with oil and natural resources, it is the most important Shia Muslim state in the world.
Iran is also a country that has suffered more cruelly than any other from chemical weapons. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran lost tens of thousands of young men, many to the obscene effects of chemical weapons used by Iraq, which was never condemned by the west.
Iran has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons, most recently in a statement by President Rouhani about the attack on the eastern Ghouta district of Damascus. He was careful not to associate the attack with a particular perpetrator, but the president’s detestation of chemical weapons was plain.
In the UN, Iran has been active in advocating the chemical weapons convention. President Rouhani has been bold in calling for negotiations with the western allies, and in committing himself to a foreign policy of “reason and moderation”. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has stressed the need for consultation and co-operation on Syria. In a country anxious about its own security, in a region where it feels threatened, it takes courage to speak in these terms. Iran’s political leaders are constrained by divided public opinion and by the views of its military elite, the Revolutionary Guard, which has close links with Syria. Iran’s president needs a constructive response from the west. [Continue reading…]