U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently undertook one of the most sensitive diplomatic initiatives of his U.N. career: spearheading a plan to secure Iranian support for a political transition in Syria aimed at pushing Tehran's long time ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from power.
But that plan backfired, despite America's backing. And now, even Ban's own aides are admitting that their boss was played.
On the eve of Syria peace talks, Ban on Sunday triumphantly announced a major breakthrough, declaring that Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, had promised him for the first time that his government would back a power sharing agreement in Syria.
But the deal began imploding almost immediately after Ban issued an invitation to Iran to attend the Syrian negotiations. Within 24 hours, the Syrian opposition had threatened to boycott the session, and Ban was pressed by the State Department to rescind the invitation after Iran failed to publicly commit to what it had told Ban.
Ban's own aides acknowledged that he had mishandled the situation, raising uncomfortable questions about his handling of the affair. At a press briefing today, Ban's spokesman, Farhan Haq, said that an "oral understanding" Iran provided to the U.N. chief was to "be followed by a written understanding. That didn't happen."
A review of the events leading up to the diplomatic cockup reveals a series of missteps and misunderstandings, involving Ban and top American and Iranian officials, that threatened to upend one of the U.S.'s most important initiatives in the Middle East. While the talks are scheduled to proceed on track, the mix-up has left a trail of recriminations and suspicions among some of the key players, including Iran and Russia, who have protested Ban's decision to disinvite Tehran.
"Clearly the United Nations Secretary-General thought he had a green light to invite Iran," said Fred Hof, a former adviser on Syria to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Clearly the United States felt outraged and double-crossed." Hof told The Cable that no single actor was to blame for the mishap, but instead, a series of high-stakes misinterpretations. "I have reason to believe it was a multifaceted, multilayered miscommunication involving several parties," he added.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the U.N. never appreciated the extent to which the Syrian opposition would oppose Iranian involvement in the talks. "The secretary-general miscalculated," he said. "The Syrian opposition freaked out much more ferociously than he expected."
Parsi, a well-connected Tehran-watcher who supports U.S.-Iranian engagement, said the mishap damaged bilateral relations between countries regardless of who's to blame. "This ended up being a confidence depleting exercise between Iran and the secretary general, the U.S. and Iran, and the U.S. and the secretary general," he said.
In the aftermath of the incident, efforts were made to smooth over the differences between the U.S. and U.N. On Tuesday, Kerry and Ban posed for a widely-circulated photo showing the two diplomats locked arm-to-arm and smiling alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
Ban and Brahimi have long believed that any political settlement in Syria would be impossible without seating Iran, a chief political and military supporter of Syria, at the negotiating table.
Having worked well with Zarif on the nuclear deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed that Iran could prove helpful. According to U.N. officials, Kerry and other American officials strongly encouraged Ban in the weeks leading up to Sunday's diplomatic fiasco to try to secure a commitment from Zarif to endorse the transitional plan and to travel to Switzerland to participate in the peace process.
But Washington conditioned Tehran's participation in the Geneva talks on its willingness to endorse an internationally-agreed road map, known as the Geneva Communiqué, for a political transition from the current Assad regime to a new government.
As early as Thursday, Ban indicated to the Americans that he was moving close to a deal.
At that stage, Kerry and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, personally informed Ban that "prior to Iranian attendance and participation they would need to publicly state they agree to the Geneva 1 communiqué," according to a U.S. official.
Ban thought he had cinched a deal.
In a series of conversations, Zarif assured Ban that Iran supported the peace talks and indicated that Iran would endorse the Geneva communiqué, according to U.N. officials.
Buoyed by those talks, Ban informed the U.S. on Sunday of his decision to invite Iran. "I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis," Ban said in a public statement. "I have spoken at length in recent days with Iran's Foreign Minister, Mr. Javad Zarif."
Zarif "has assured me that, like all the other countries invited to the opening day discussions in Montreux, Iran understands that the basis of the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, including the Action Plan. Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers. It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux."
But neither Zarif nor any other Iranian official was willing to make such a commitment in public.
In a terse statement issued Monday, Iran's U.N. ambassador Mohammed Khazee said that "the Islamic Republic of Iran does not accept any preconditions for its participation in Geneva II conference. If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I communiqué, Iran will not participate in Geneva II conference."
Ban, meanwhile, citing "disappointment" with Iran's refusal to publicly endorse the communique rescinded the invitation, triggering protests from Iran and Russia.
"I made it clear in numerous phone conversations with the secretary general that Iran does not accept any preconditions to attend the talks," Zarif said Tuesday in a statement to State run ISNA News Agency. "It is also regrettable that Mr. Ban does not have the courage to provide the real reasons for the withdrawal," Zarif added, saying his government was never "too keen on attending in the first place."
The fallout from the diplomatic dispute has raised questions about how closely the U.S. and U.N. coordinated, and who was responsible for the cockup.
U.S. officials have indicated that they were blindsided by Ban's decision to issue an invitation to Iran before it had committed to endorsing the Geneva communique.
U.N. officials, however, maintain that while Ban never sought American "approval" for his decision, he consulted with the United States intensively. "The U.S. made its concerns known," said one diplomatic source. Ban "made his own decision, with input from a number of sources."
"I know for a fact that this could not have been a surprise to the U.S. authorities," Ban's chief spokesman, Martin Nesirky said Monday. "It was not hasty and they were fully aware of the timing of the announcement."
A week ago, Kerry hinted that it would be wrong to invite Iran because of its military support for Assad. "Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria," he said. "No other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are."
But one U.N. official suggested that the U.S. had actively promoted the arrangement, saying the U.S. had even urged the U.N. chief to step up his announcement to invite Iran by a day out of concern that the news could leak.
A U.S. official disputed the claim that it had prodded Ban to step up his announcement. "No we didn't ask them to move their press conference from Monday to Sunday," the official said.
Other U.N.-based diplomats said it was hard to imagine that Ban had undertaken the decision to invite Iran without believing he at least had Washington's implicit support. "I have never seen Ban act without a green light from the United States," said one U.N. diplomat. "There were conversations and there must have been a misunderstanding."