Newspaper article International New York Times

A Dance of Diplomacy Is Marred by a Misstep ; U.N. Plan to Involve Iran in Syria Talks Crumbled in Face of Deep Divisions

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Dance of Diplomacy Is Marred by a Misstep ; U.N. Plan to Involve Iran in Syria Talks Crumbled in Face of Deep Divisions

Article excerpt

A precise diplomatic sequence that relied Iran and the United States to perform failed, forcing Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, to stumble.

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 that he was inviting Iran to join the international peace conference on Syria this week. 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 of the United States 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 Communique, 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 Communique, 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. …

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