Haass: U.S. Should Open Talks With Syria, Iran on Middle East Crisis

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the United States is making a mistake in not dealing directly with both Syria and Iran in trying to resolve the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

July 27, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the United States is making a mistake in not dealing directly with both Syria and Iran in trying to resolve the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

“This administration and other administrations have often viewed diplomacy subjectively,” says Haass, who was senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs in the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush, and head of Policy Planning for former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Haass says the Bush administration regards diplomacy as “an inducement to be held out only if countries met a certain standard of behavior. I simply disagree with that. We ought to approach diplomacy as simply a neutral tool that has the potential to promote or advance U.S.interests.” The administration’s reluctance to engage Iran and Syria, Haass says, is harming its chances for advancing American interests in the Mideast.

The United States and several European and Arab states in Rome agreed on some broad principles but could not actually get together on an immediate ceasefire in the Israeli-Hezbollah confrontation. It looks as if the United States is trying to give Israel more time to finish up its fighting before a ceasefire is declared.  The United States has done that in the past with Israel in other wars. Do you have any thoughts on the timing?

Let me answer the question by first getting to where we are. There’s still basic disagreement on what you might describe as the sequencing of diplomacy, in particular as to whether the ceasefire not simply ought to come first, but whether it ought to be conditional or unconditional. The United States clearly prefers a ceasefire to be conditional, part of a larger, fairly ambitious package. The Europeans, the United Nations, and indeed I think much of the world prefers the ceasefire to come as soon as possible and then turn to the surrounding diplomacy. My hunch is that sooner or later the United States will have to move towards that position, and indeed my prediction is the Israelis may move somewhat in that direction too.

For example, neither Israel nor the United States will be able to insist that all of Security Council Resolution 1559 [of September 2, 2004, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and called for the disbanding of all militias including Hezbollah] be implemented as part of a ceasefire deal. There is simply no way you are going to be able to persuade, coerce, or force Hezbollah at this stage to disarm and disband. The most you could get is a ceasefire and possibly some pull-back from the Israel-Lebanon border.

What about the idea of a multilateral peace keeping force?

This was a second problem that clearly was reflected in Rome. There was a lack of deep or broad agreement on the mandate for any outside force. There simply is very little international enthusiasm for participating in a multilateral force that in any way is more than administrative. By that I mean you are not going to have volunteers to join a force unless Israel and Hezbollah both send the message that they welcome the force and will not in any way resist it.

Until that happens, I simply don’t think you are going to get meaningful progress on an international force. Coming back to your question, I would think that the thrust of diplomacy at this point needs to be bringing Syria and Iran into the process and setting demands for a ceasefire that are significant but modest, if that is not a contradiction. By that I mean have a ceasefire, pull forces back from the border, possibly insert either the Lebanese army or some sort of international force, but clearly delaying the implementation of 1559, and possibly even delaying a prisoner swap until later.

In former Secretary of State George Shultz’s memoirs he talks about the resolution of the TWA hijacking episode in Beirut airport in 1985 which was instigated by Hezbollah—or at least Shiites from the Dawa party. The crisis actually was resolved by the Syrians. President Reagan sent a note to then President Hafez al-Assad asking for help, and the Syrians in effect delivered. But this administration does not seem to want to talk to the Syrians? Should it not ask for help from President Bashar al-Assad?

I believe this administration is making a mistake in trying to isolate Syria. The Syrian regime is not vulnerable, so American isolation is not going to bring about its downfall. Secondly—and as you say—there is a history of limited cooperation with Syria. You just mentioned one case in Lebanon. I recall from personal experience Syrian cooperation with Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. They had troops there. And subsequent to that I remember it was the Syrian government that was the first to accept the first Bush administration’s invitation to the Madrid peace conference, which brought Israelis and Arabs face to face for the first time to negotiate.

So limited cooperation with unattractive Syrian regimes is something we have had in the past, and it is something that we should try to bring about again, particularly since arms reaching Hezbollah, for the most part, have to cross Syria. So if the goal is to see that Hezbollah not replace all the military equipment that Israel has taken out, it behooves us to get Syria on board. It behooves us similarly to get Syria working with us to close its border to Iraq. We don’t want to see jihadis crossing there. We don’t want to see a Syrian-Iranian axis. We ought to be doing everything possible to weaken the ties between Syria and Iran, and getting Syria to at least cooperate in a limited fashion is a worthy goal. We may have to think about what economic or diplomatic inducements to give Syria. That to me is a legitimate question for American foreign policy.

Do you subscribe to the view that Iran was behind the Hezbollah abduction of two Israeli soldiers in some way?

The short answer is yes. It’s unlikely that Hezbollah would have gone out and taken such an initiative on its own. One can construct a case about why Iran might want it to be done: to distract attention from the nuclear program or conceivably to send the signal that any international pressure on its nuclear program would meet with strong resistance, this being simply one example of the kind to expect. That said, Hezbollah is not simply an Iranian tool, and I expect it also served Hezbollah’s interest to demonstrate that it is still a player, that Hamas is not the only so-called resistance organization. It is quite possible that this was an initiative that served both Iranian and Hezbollah objectives.

But of course, if the world believes that Iran was a major player in causing this military confrontation, other nations will probably now lean even harder on Iran. The United States may now get more support for a tougher line, won’t it?

This will cut both ways. There will be that reaction, but there will also probably be a reaction—like it or not—that Iran has emerged as one of the real powers in this part of the world. Iran is a principal beneficiary of Iraq’s weakening. As we have seen here, Iran has the ability to affect developments in Lebanon across Lebanon’s border with Israel, in Gaza, and elsewhere. Part of diplomacy, I would suggest, is taking realities into account. And my hunch is that while there will be those who will argue that this makes the case for increasing the isolation or sanctioning of Iran, there will probably be even more who will argue that this makes the case for diplomacy that brings Iran into the process. That takes into account the reality that Iran now, arguably along with Israel, is one of the two local countries most able to shape the course of the Middle East.

From where I sit, it strengthens the case for the United States having a broad dialogue with Iran—not as a favor to Iran, not as a reward, but simply as a strategic recognition that Iran has the capacity to influence the future of the Middle East and American interests in the Middle East. The United States ought to explore whether diplomacy has the potential to advance our relative position vis-à-vis Iran. If it turns out not, we always then have the option of considering other instruments. And by the way, if we need to consider other instruments, it will have been better to have demonstrated that diplomacy was tried and came up short rather than to hand critics the argument that we never fully gave diplomacy a chance.

Of course, the United States has offered to talk to Iran in the context of the nuclear negotiations.

It was only in the context of the nuclear negotiations, and second of all it was conditional. The United States has said it will talk with Iran only if Iran first rolled back various enrichment related activities. I would suggest that the United States offer to sit down with Iran and have broad talks without preconditions on the nuclear question, on the terrorism question, on the broader Middle East question, on Iraq, on Afghanistan—you name it.

I don’t like the situation that Iran now has emerged as one of the real powerhouses in a part of the world that houses vital American interests. But it is a fact of life. Again, we shouldn’t view diplomacy as a favor; we should view diplomacy as an instrument of American national security that has the potential to advance American interests.

Is this administration averse to dealing with either Syria or Iran because of its view that the regimes should change in those countries?

This administration and other administrations have often viewed diplomacy subjectively. Diplomacy was something of a reward or something of an inducement to be held out only if countries met a certain standard of behavior. I simply disagree with that. We ought to approach diplomacy as simply a neutral tool that has the potential to promote or advance U.S. interests. In the case of Iran and Syria, there has been reluctance in Washington to engage them because they are seen as unattractive or even evil regimes. And that clearly is the case with Iran. The administration has historically been loath to deal with Iran in the belief that the regime in Tehran is in a precarious position, and diplomacy would somehow buttress the regime. I believe that is simply based on a misreading of the regime’s stability, and in the process we have lost several years of what could have been useful interaction with the Iranians.

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