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Will the Syria crisis force Washington to sit down with Tehran?

Kofi Annan, casting around for fresh ideas to stem the violence in Syria, last week proposed inviting Iran to join the United States, Russia, and other world and regional powers seeking to craft a plan for the country's political transition.

The initiative was quickly embraced by Moscow, which proposed hosting this "contact group" for an international conference, and was just as quickly dismissed by the Obama administration, which claimed that Tehran is part of the problem in Syria, not a reliable peace partner.

But why did Annan want Iran inside the peace tent while it is purportedly supporting the Syrian government crackdown, and what impact might Tehran's involvement have on the outcome of the Syrian crisis?

Annan's negotiating team has argued that it would be best to have Iran on its side, rather than seeking to undermine it. "Iran is a key player in this crisis and if you're going to have a group that talks about what can be done to pressure the parties in Syria then you can't neglect the fact that Iran has influence on the Syrian government," Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told Turtle Bay.

The decision to try to include Iran was driven by an old-fashioned diplomatic dictum: you need to make peace with your enemy, not your friend. For Annan, that means inviting anyone with the power and influence to spoil the negotiating process into the peace camp, according to U.N. officials.

The United States -- under both Democratic and Republican administrations -- has accepted the need to sit down at the table with the Iranians to address regional conflicts in Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree, Iraq. And U.S. policy makers have entertained talks with the Taliban to pave the way for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But the prospects for talks in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election may prove awkward, particularly at a time when high-stakes negotiations over Iran's nuclear program appear stalled again. On Monday, the United States expressed its frustration by announcing yet another round of sanctions against Tehran. While the administration has not ruled out the possibility of an Iranian role in the Syrian peace process it has reacted coolly too it.

"There is no question that [Iran] is actively engaged in supporting the government in perpetrating the violence on the ground," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told reporters at U.N. headquarters on Thursday. "So we think Iran has not demonstrated to date a readiness to contribute constructively to a peaceful political solution."

The United States and other critics say that Iran's interests run contrary to the U.N.'s goals and that Iran will not support a peace effort that threatens to jeopardize its own interests. "No country in the world stands to lose more from an Assad collapse than Iran. They would lose their only regional ally and their key thoroughfare to Hezbollah," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Iran's position on Syria is to publicly call for reform and conciliation, while privately financing and arming the Assads to the teeth."

"This is an exercise that is designed to avoid confrontation on everybody's part," Brett Schaefer, who tracks the U.N. for the Heritage Foundation, told Turtle Bay. "I think the Russians, the Chinese, and Iran are going to use every opportunity they can to extend this process out, and that a number of Western countries, including the United States, are willing to go along with this because they are unwilling to step outside the U.N.-centric approach."

For China and Russia, the fate of Syria is inextricably linked to that of Iran, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. They fear that the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad will embolden the West to step up pressure to topple the mullahs in Tehran.

"This is about the strategic position of China and Russia writ large," said Landis.  "Syria is the canary in the mineshaft. If Syria is taken down, all eyes will turn to Iran."

By bringing Iran to the peace table, however, Russia would be reassuring Iran that its interests will be taken on board in any peace process. Richard Gowan, a scholar at New York University Center for International Cooperation, said that Annan is right to keep channels open to the Iranians, but that Annan has been too deferential to Syria's foreign backers.

"Annan had already made it known that he was talking to Iran on Syria: emphasizing Tehran's importance at this stage was a tactical public relations error,' he said. "It reinforced the impression that Annan is too reliant on Assad's friends in Moscow and Tehran," he told Turtle Bay. "Annan has arguably not been bold enough in challenging the regime's remaining friends."

For months, U.S. and European officials have accused Iran and Russia of supplying Damascus with weapons. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have reportedly funneled arms to opposition fighters. 

An April 12 ceasefire negotiated by Annan, and backed up by a team of about 300 U.N. monitors, is now in tatters. Syrian government forces continue to shell residential neighborhoods, while government-backed militia are suspected of carrying out mass killings in opposition towns. The Free Syrian Army, emboldened by fresh supplies of weapons, has vowed to fight on, saying the U.N.-brokered cease fire has been routinely violated by the government.

"Part of the problem with Syria is that both the Saudis and the Iranians see this as a proxy war for their relative regional ambitions and you can't have one in [the peace process] and the other out without creating a party motivated to subvert the concerted international action," said Jeffrey Laurenti, a U.N. expert at the Century Foundation.

For the United States, sitting down with the Iranians on an election year "is politically awkward, but a wider war around Syria is also a problem. It's not very palatable to Washington but sometimes you swallow hard in order to get a job done."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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