Iran and Saudi Arabia clash inside Syria talks

Iran and Saudi Arabia clashed repeatedly last week inside the diplomatic talks on Syria, with Iran accusing Saudis of terrorism. Their tension threatened to end the new negotiations just as they began in Vienna on Friday.

Inside the nine-hour meeting, according to two Western officials briefed on it, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir got into a heated argument, during which Zarif blamed Saudi Arabian nationals for the 9/11 attacks. The comments startled the participants, who included Secretary of State John Kerry, and the room went quiet after Zarif’s remark.

Zarif confirmed to me that he made the remark and pointed out that he was not blaming the Saudi government for the 9/11 attacks, just Saudi nationals. Fifteen of the 19 attackers were Saudi citizens.

Western officials who were briefed on the meeting said the anecdote showed the difficulty of getting Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss anything civilly, much less come to an agreement on Syria, where both sides have proxy forces in the fight. But the meeting Friday did yield a nine-point joint statement outlining shared goals for a resolution of the Syria crisis.

Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, traveled to Bahrain the next day and spoke forcefully against the Iranian involvement in Syria, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue. He set two red lines for any Saudi agreement for a way forward in Syria: that there must be a date and means for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and that all foreign forces, especially Iranian troops, must leave Syria at the beginning of a political process. Iran has hundreds of fighters in Syria and supports thousands of Hezbollah soldiers.

“It is up to the Iranians whether they want to have relations with us based on good neighborliness, or if they want to have relations that are filled with tension,” he said. “That is on Iran.”

On Monday, Iran threatened to withdraw from the talks because of Al-Jubeir’s comments. Iran’s state-run news agency quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as saying: “An inexperienced young man in a regional country will not reach anywhere by rudeness in front of elders.” The comments were widely interpreted to be referring to Al-Jubeir.

In Bahrain on Saturday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told me that he was cautiously optimistic that the Vienna talks that Kerry spearheaded could bear some fruit. But he said the Saudi position as described by al-Jubeir, requiring Iranian forces to leave Syria at the beginning of the process, would not work.

“Of course, that is not realistically achievable, so therefore everything that comes after as being conditioned on that is slightly hypothetical,” he said. “Nobody walked out, and that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Both for the Iranians and the Saudis it is not easy to have that kind of direct discussion.”

Hammond said the two sides are still “far, far apart on the key question,” which is when Assad will go. Iran and Russia want Assad to be able to stand in new elections while the U.S., European and Arab states don’t believe Assad can be any part of a new political process because, as Hammond said, “he has too much blood on his hands.”

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in Bahrain that eventually Russia will realize its intervention in Syria was a mistake, and the Kremlin will abandon its support for Assad. Most officials and experts at the conference were skeptical of that assessment. Regardless, Russia has signed on to what’s known as the Geneva Communique, which calls for a transition governing body to take over in Syria until credible elections can be held.

Iran has never agreed to the Geneva terms. Notably, the joint statement coming out of Vienna makes no mention of the transitional governing body. It simply states that the U.N. will convene a political process leading to a new constitution and new elections. If that language stands, Iran will have scored a major concession that opens the door for Assad’s continued rule. The U.S., in its effort to bring Iran to the table, may be putting the solution to the Syria war further from reach.

This article was written by Josh Rogin for Bloomberg View on Nov. 05, 2015.