For U.N. chief, a dance of diplomacy is halted by a misstep

UNITED NATIONS — Over the weekend Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, with a reputation for being risk averse, took a significant risk. He choreographed a precise diplomatic sequence on Syria that relied on others to perform their roles equally precisely. The choreography did not go as planned, and Mr. Ban stumbled under the spotlight.

The sequence, according to interviews with diplomats, went like this: He would announce he was inviting Iran to join an international peace conference on Syria. Iran would accept, seconding what Mr. Ban had announced. At no point would it be said by either party that there were conditions for Iran’s participation — a sticking point for months — though Mr. Ban would make it clear that Iran welcomed the mandate for the conference: to discuss the establishment of a transitional government.

Secretary of State John Kerry was skeptical, and he told Mr. Ban as much hours before Mr. Ban went public. Officials in the State Department said they emphasized all along that they expected Iran to commit publicly to the ground rules, known as the Geneva Communiqué, ideally before the invitation. A senior official at the United Nations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of protocol surrounding diplomatic conversations, said there were 20 to 30 calls between Mr. Ban’s office and American officials in the 72 hours leading up to the announcement of the Iran invitation on Sunday night. Mr. Ban was convinced he could make it work, the official said.

But in diplomacy, there are no dress rehearsals. Mr. Ban’s choreography went awry, forcing him into a corner.

Less than a day after issuing the invitation, the secretary general reversed course. Iran could not attend the talks, he said, because it had not affirmed the ground rules as he said he had been assured. Instead, the State Department came out with a note that said participation would have to be “conditioned on Iran’s explicit and public support” for the Geneva Communiqué, which, as the senior United Nations official put it, was guaranteed to rankle Tehran. By dawn Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Iran would not accept any conditions, which was its longstanding position.

Whether Mr. Ban had misjudged the Iranians’ intentions remains unknown. The United Nations official said that the secretary general had not been shown a draft Iranian statement, but that the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, assured him twice over the weekend that it would come, shortly after the United Nations announcement.

It may well be that Mr. Ban fell into a semantic trap, a minefield for high-stakes global diplomacy, expecting Iran to agree implicitly to participate in discussions aimed at forming a transitional government in Syria, as part of the process that began during the first round of talks — without calling that a precondition. Mr. Zarif, already under pressure at home from hard-liners over his nuclear deal with the West, could not be seen as surrendering.

United States officials, though, said it was clear to them Iran was unlikely to accept those terms. And with Mr. Ban’s invitation issued, the United States reasserted its “precondition.” It could not afford to be seen as submitting either, on its support for members of the Syrian opposition and their backers in Saudi Arabia.

And that was that. The script fell apart.

“One can argue he did not deliver because he reacted to Washington’s statement. One can argue he was never going to deliver anyway,” the United Nations official said, referring to Mr. Zarif, adding: “We will never know.”

Mr. Ban called this official before dawn Monday. “He felt betrayed,” the official said.

It would be a day of difficult phone calls. Within hours, even before he faced the members of the Security Council that morning, Mr. Ban heard from Mr. Kerry. Soon, the State Department publicly called on Mr. Ban to rescind the invitation. Syrian opposition parties threatened to withdraw from the talks.

By midafternoon, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said his country would not attend the peace talks. Mr. Zarif, whose supposed pledge had been the basis of Mr. Ban’s invitation, lashed out.

“I made it clear in numerous phone conversations with the secretary general that Iran does not accept any preconditions to attend the talks,” Mr. Zarif said, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

At 4 p.m., a statement came from Mr. Ban’s office. “The secretary general is deeply disappointed by Iranian public statements today,” it said, noting that they were “not at all consistent” with Iran’s verbal assurance to him. At twilight, he left for the peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland.

It was a day of diplomatic topsy-turvy, reflecting the value of time, words and ultimately, trust.

As Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, put it, the United States could not have publicly strayed from its longstanding position that the talks in Switzerland be premised on discussions for a post-Assad transition. The Iranians could not have strayed from their longstanding position that they would not accept preconditions.

“The way in which the U.N. went about this caused all sides to dig in their heels, defend their positions, and that scuttled the invitation,” Mr. Nasr said.

There was the additional wrinkle of time. Mr. Ban’s office had originally scheduled a news briefing for Monday morning, when, according to the senior official, he had planned to announce the invitation to Iran. It was the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, the official said, who suggested that he come out with it on Sunday night, before it was leaked to the news media. An American official denied that.

Both sides agree that Washington had been aware of, but had not endorsed, Mr. Ban’s plan. The State Department “ideally” wanted the Iranian statement to come before the invitation or “concurrently,” a department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.

However, United Nations officials insist that the sequence — an invitation, followed by a nod from the Iranians — was the only way they thought it would work.

What Mr. Ban did not have Sunday night was a script for what the Iranians would say — or when.

“I would want to be sure I had something written in my pocket,” Thomas Pickering, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, said of the secretary general’s gamble. “He may have had faith Iranians would have kept their word. It seems to be too hard for the Iranian internal system to have come out in a way he and we would like.”

Mr. Ban announced the Iran invitation on Sunday a little before 6 p.m. Eastern time. By that time, it was the middle of the night in Tehran — way too late for government officials to respond, but early enough for Washington to do so.

Less than two hours after Mr. Ban’s briefing, the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in a statement: “The United States views the U.N. secretary general’s invitation to Iran to attend the upcoming Geneva conference as conditioned on Iran’s explicit and public support for the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué, including the establishment of a transitional governing body by mutual consent with full executive authorities.”

A United Nations official immediately called Ms. Power. “When we saw this statement, we knew this could be a game changer,” the official said.

The United States insisted that its position has been consistent. State Department officials have said that Mr. Kerry and Ms. Power told United Nations officials in clear terms that no country that refused to endorse the Geneva Communiqué publicly should attend peace talks.

The United Nations official said Mr. Ban was trying to bridge what was actually not such a big gap. Iran seemed to agree with the “essence” of what the United States had wanted, though not the “format.”

“The secretary general all along, and still, feels that Iran has to be part of the solution,” the official said. “He just couldn’t make it work.”

A day later and a continent away, the diplomats gathered in Montreux for the talks. Mr. Kerry clasped Mr. Ban’s right hand; the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, grabbed the secretary general’s left hand; and they all smiled for the camera.

“Do we look happy?” Mr. Lavrov declared.

By The New York Times 

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