The handling of the issue of Iranian participation in the next round of multilateral discussions on the civil war in Syria has been something of an embarrassment—certainly for the United States, the United Nations, and the conglomeration known as the Syrian opposition. The United States has seemed to be more interested in words rather than in substance in the demands it has been placing on Iran. It finally got its way by strong-arming the U.N. Secretary-General into withdrawing an invitation he had already extended (while the Iranians simultaneously said they are not interested in participating on the basis of the terms being demanded of them). If this whole episode foreshadows how the conference that this is supposed to be all about is apt to go, the odds of success now appear even longer than they did before.
The U.S. opposition to Iranian participation defies a basic principle of how inclusiveness is related to prospects for success in such multinational endeavors. Or as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov—who has been made to sound like one of the more reasonable people in this affair—put it, “Negotiations involve sitting at the table not just with those you like, but with those whose participation the solution depends on.” If we suspect someone we don't like of causing later trouble, the chance of such trouble-making does not lessen by keeping that someone outside the collective diplomatic tent rather than inside it; the opposite is more likely to be true. The conference is not going to operate according to some voting system in which each possibly contrary vote we can exclude makes it more likely we will get our way. Positive results will require something more like a consensus. If Iran—or anyone else—were to stand in the way of consensus an appropriate response would be at that point to call them to account publicly.
An air of unreality surrounds what has supposedly been the central substantive issue involved: getting “mutual consent” among all involved—including the current Syrian regime—on installation of a new transitional government for Syria. The principal factor that makes that seem unreal is that the Assad regime has not been losing the war lately. That makes the necessary squaring-the-circle trick of getting this regime to negotiate its own demise all the harder to accomplish, if it wasn't already impossibly hard. Another factor is the question, which has been increasingly acknowledged of late, of whether the regime's demise would be all that desirable anyway, given the nature of the fractious and extremist-infested opposition.
The episode has exhibited the general tendency, which appears on other issues as well, to worst-case what Iran might be up to. Why would the Iranians be more likely to get in the way of negotiating the Syrian regime out of existence than the Syrian regime itself would be? A useful bit of background to remember is that the odd-couple alliance between Iran and Syria began as a response to both being rivals of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, which is no longer a factor. Yes, there are some other commonalities, such as economic ties and the relationships of each with Lebanese Hezbollah, but if Assad were on shaky enough ground to make an Assad-less transitional government a reality, his regime would be as much of a liability as an asset to Tehran.
It is hardly surprising that Iran would balk at the sort of conditions being imposed on it to participate in Geneva II. The Iranians are being called on to declare full allegiance to the outcome of an earlier conference from which they were pointedly excluded. Who else would be willing to do that? And if Iran's assistance to one side in the Syrian civil war is some kind of disqualifier, it is hard to explain why similar conditions are not applied to those who have stoked the war by supplying lethal assistance to the other side.