"Start the Political Process in Syria Now" [updated]

A group of senior leaders, including the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Germany, came together at the Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting in Tehran on October 17, 2015, to debate potential avenues to end the war in Syria and the state of implementation of the Vienna Agreement (JCPOA) on Iran's nuclear program as well as other key issues.

Foreign Ministers Zarif, Steinmeier and MSC Chairman Ischinger in Tehran (from left to right, Photo: MSC / Kleinschmidt).

"Can Iran play a constructive role in Syria? Iran has to play a constructive role. Without Iran playing a constructive role, there will be no political solution," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier argued in the Core Group Meeting's public session. "We have to start the political process in Syria now," he emphasized, "even though we are not able to show the full picture."

His Iranian colleague Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed that preconditions for a political process in Syria were wrong: "We are talking of a political solution but some set preconditions that have only prolonged the war. […] Insisting on preconditions must stop."

With respect to Syria's future, Zarif argued that "Syria will need democracy, respect for minority rights, rule of law." Asked about Assad's future, he stated: "We need to focus on institutions, procedures, and guarantees. And let the people of Syria focus on individuals."

Regarding the Vienna nuclear agreement (JCPOA), Steinmeier said: "Our deal is designed to work even in the absence of trust. […] This is no small achievement." He also stressed that Germany considered "the agreement an opening for further diplomatic endeavors." But using the momentum of Vienna in that respect "will be anything but easy. I have no illusions." It was up to Iran, Steinmeier argued, to prove those wrong who believe Iran won't help solve the regional crises. 

Iran, Zarif said, would participate "actively in any political solution – in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere in the region. […] You cannot live in an insecure neighborhood and remain secure yourself." Other Iranian participants, pointing to the comparatively small Iranian military budget, argued that Iran could hardly be a threat to the region after sanctions were lifted.

Steinmeier appealed to all important regional actors: "Each actor in this region has a responsibility that goes beyond national interests and that nobody from the outside can fill in for" (follow this link to read his entire speech).

The other sessions were held under Chatham House Rule. In the debate on the state of implementation of the JCPOA, several participants argued it was not time to be self-congratulatory yet. The parties had to be careful to protect what was achieved, not least because there were important groups who might try to find a way to derail the agreement.

The discussions on Syria demonstrated the wide gulf of disagreement between Iran and the West on how to create the conditions for a lasting political settlement of the war. One European participant, for instance, argued that Iran's and Russia's policies made a political settlement less likely since they made Syrian president Assad believe he could win the war without having to resort to a political solution. An Iranian participant, on the other hand, argued that a political settlement had to follow the "destruction of terrorism".

A final session focused on the economic and energy policy implications of the JCPOA and the lifting of the sanctions. One participant expressed hope that deeper cooperation in numerous sectors of the economy would also help contribute to political and security cooperation.

Numerous participants did stress the timeliness of this MSC Core Group Meeting, both because of the urgency of the regional security crises and the timing three months after the Vienna Agreement.

As MSC Chairman Ambassador Ischinger put it during his opening address, "Now is precisely the time to find out whether and, if so, how Iran and the West can cooperate on issues beyond the nuclear agreement, especially concerning regional security."

The MSC Core Group Meeting was co-hosted with the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) and held in cooperation with the governments of Germany and Iran.

Besides Zarif and Steinmeier, participants also included the foreign ministers of Lebanon and Oman, Gebran Bassil and Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Idris Barzani, the United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, the Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Schmid, the President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French National Assembly Élisabeth Guigou, the Chairman of the German Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee Norbert Röttgen, the speaker of the Council of Representatives of Iraq Salim Al-Jabouri as well as numerous senior Iranian officials, governmental representatives from Arab states, parliamentarians from European countries and NGO representatives.


About the MSC Core Group Meetings

Since 2009, the MSC has linked up with local partners to host so-called Core Group Meetings in capitals around the world. Limited to an exclusive group of no more than 60 participants, the MSC Core Group Meeting provides an intimate setting for high-level decision-makers from around the globe to discuss current security challenges in their host region's context. Meetings have already taken place in Washington, D.C. (2009 & 2013), Moscow (2010), Beijing (2011), Doha (2013), New Delhi (2014), and Vienna (2015). Further Core Group Meetings are planned for Addis Ababa (April 2016), Beijing, and Washington, D.C. For more information, click here.

26 October 2015, by MSC