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Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies says the invitation to Iran is late but an essential move for a diplomatic regional solution, made possible by Russia’s escalated involvement in Syria

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Iran has been invited to participate for the first time in international talks over Syria’s future. Joining us now to discuss this development is Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism Project at IPS, that’s the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. She is the author of many books, among them Understanding Isis and The New Global War on Terror. Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: So Phyllis, what do you make of this latest development, Iran at the table? BENNIS: This is enormously important. It’s important because without one of the major players failure was essentially guaranteed. We saw it in the first two international processes, the so-called Geneva One and Geneva Two process. We saw it in recent meetings in Vienna where Iran was explicitly excluded. And now we’re seeing a shift in the U.S. position, which is very, very important. It’s too late. It’s very late. But certainly better late than never on, on ensuring that all the major players who are the source of the arms, the money, the support, the military support, for all sides, all of them have to be at the table if there’s any hope of of a diplomatic solution. We’re seeing this right now in the context of escalation both by the U.S. and by Russia. Russia escalating its air strikes, the U.S. escalating both air strikes and potentially further ground operations in Iraq and potentially Syria as well. But in the context of escalation sometimes that’s the moment when diplomacy can become possible. So this gives us a bit of hope that the next round of diplomacy, which is supposed to begin in the next few days in Vienna, could really move forward. PERIES: And as far as Washington is concerned, you think this is a new development that they had been pushing for as a result of perhaps negotiations they’ve been having with Iran in the past over the nuclear developments? BENNIS: I think there’s no question that the U.S. and P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran certainly opened a lot of options that had been closed off before. Both sides, both the U.S. and Iran officially on the record were very clear that this was a, a very narrow agreement. It only deals with the question of Iran’s nuclear program. And it does not deal with the issue of any further relationship between the U.S. and Iran. And in fact, the Iranian leader recently repeated his earlier position that Iran was not planning to negotiate anything with the United States, so that it wasn’t entering new negotiations. But the implication of that was rather narrow, itself. It implied negotiations on U.S.-Iranian relations were not going to be on the table. I don’t think that Ayatollah Khomeini would have meant to include the possibility of, of multilateral negotiations, in which the U.S. is one of many players on the question of ending the war in Syria, stabilizing Syria, the war in Iraq, et cetera. Iran is very concerned about the instability in all of these neighboring countries. It’s far more directly threatened by it than the U.S. is, for instance. So I think that there’s every reason to be hopeful that the Iranians will accept the invitation. It was made possible by that opening of new relations. Certainly the engagement of Russia as a much more active military player in, in Syria, has had an impact as well. And also I think we can’t ignore the fact that previous efforts at diplomacy have all failed. Everyone knows that eventually there will have to be some kind of a diplomatic solution. The question is how many people have to die, how many people will be injured, how many people will be forced to leave their homes, before that diplomacy begins? And with the greater pressure escalating on a daily basis, the pressure particularly of hundreds of thousands of new refugees that are flooding into Europe, putting more pressure on the Europeans and the United States, but certainly the hundreds of thousands that continue to flood the neighboring countries, Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon in particular. I think that the pressure is enormous on all sides to get some kind of talks actually going. PERIES: And there was reports this morning in the Washington Post that President Obama is considering, or at least the security chiefs have tabled a proposal, in terms of increasing the U.S. presence in Syria. What does that mean? BENNIS: Well, I think this is part of the overall escalation. We’re seeing the U.S. escalating its ground participation as well as escalating its air strikes. The Russians are escalating air strikes. This is making it worse on the ground, there’s no question about that. The only reason that I’m still a bit hopeful is that sometimes when negotiations are about to get serious both sides will try to stake out increasingly stronger positions on the ground in a military conflict, hoping that they then have something better to bargain with. It’s a terrible, brutal reality that Syrians will die to, to help defend the positioning, the posturing if you will, of both the United States and Russia, but it is a reality. I think that the U.S. escalation is partly to match the existing Russian escalation. The Russian escalation was partly to match the previous U.S. escalation. It’s very dangerous. The fact that we saw a quiet, cavalier approach to the direct U.S. engagement on the ground, boots on the ground if you will, just a few days ago on the, the raid in–that led to a number, about 70 prisoners, being released from ISIS custody. And there were U.S. troops that played the major role. One U.S. soldier was killed. And that seems to have been accepted as an inevitable part of what is now going on with U.S. policy in the region. I’m hoping that the possibility of negotiations will, after an initial escalation that we’re seeing right this minute, will lead to a diminished level of U.S. and Russian military engagement. And hopefully at some point we’re going to have to start talking about a, an arms embargo on all sides where they not only stop participating directly, stop the Russian flights, stop the U.S. flights, stop the U.S. ground troops, et cetera, but also stop arming all the other sides. Right now the U.S. and Russia and their respective allies are flooding the place with weapons. So no matter what kinds of decisions were made by the major powers, the parties on the ground could continue to fight. That has to stop. There’s going to have to be a, not only a ceasefire but an arms embargo before we can have any hope that a diplomatic solution has any hope of working. PERIES: Right. And then finally, Phyllis, there were reports that the foreign minister of Iran and the foreign minister of Russia were both meeting just hours ago in preparation for these talks that are taking place, apparently on Thursday and Friday in Vienna. Now, do you think where Iran falls in terms of whether on the side of the Russians or the U.S. or what role they will play in these talks will be pivotal in its success? BENNIS: Absolutely right. And I think we don’t know for sure what the Iranian position will be. But I think that what’s very likely is that the Iranian position vis-a-vis its longstanding support for the government in Syria is probably very close to that of the Russians. And there was, as many of us have noted, a rather significant concession from Russian President Putin in his speech last week at the United Nations. When he said that what stands to prevent a, an ISIS takeover of Syria, is the Syrian state and its military. He very specifically did not say what stands between Syria–a Syrian takeover in ISIS is the Syrian president and his military. The implication being that Russia is concerned about maintaining its access in Syria, its strategic base at Tartus. These are the important considerations. It wants to make sure its interests will continue to be defended. I would assume that Iran would have a very similar situation in mind, that it wants to make sure that its interests, its relationships on the ground with both the military, with Hezbollah, which has also been supported by the Syrian government, that those things remain in place, but that the concern about President Assad individually is much less important for both Iran and Russia. PERIES: All right. Phyllis, I know you’re on the road, but we hope to have you back towards the end of the week to see what happened. BENNIS: I look forward to it. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.