Don't predetermine outcome of Syria peace talks: Minister

A Syrian man stands in the courtyard of his farm as smoke billows in the background following reported air strikes near the rebel-held village of al-Chifouniya, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 4, 2016.
A Syrian man stands in the courtyard of his farm as smoke billows in the background following reported air strikes near the rebel-held village of al-Chifouniya, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 4, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - A "zero sum game" approach to negotiations, where each side seeks to make gains at the expense of the other, would result in the failure of peace talks on Syria, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, drawing on his experience in forging a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

Dr Zarif, who was speaking at a conference organised by the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore on Tuesday (March 8), highlighted how the Iran nuclear talks - which began in 2006 - were deadlocked until the two sides took a pragmatic approach.

"We defined our objectives in two diametrically opposed formulations - that is, they said zero enrichment... and we had the other way, that we should have a (peaceful nuclear) programme and it was our right and no one could question it," he said.

The United States and United Nations imposed tough sanctions in a bid to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions. "But it could not achieve its outcome because it was based on a zero sum strategy that they would gain at our expense," said Dr Zarif.

"We were able to increase our centrifuges from 200 in 2005 to more than 20,000. So the zero enrichment policy led to a 20,000 enrichment policy... They could not achieve a result from that perspective. But we did not gain much either," he said.

He pointed out that Iran's economy spiralled from 7 per cent growth before the sanctions bit into a 6.8 per cent contraction by 2013 in spite of the fact that oil prices were the highest ever in history.

"The reason we were able in 2013 to begin the process of resolution was to understand that neither side could achieve its objective at the expense of denying the other the opportunity to achieve its ends," he said. "With a little bit of thinking, that same objective could be rearticulated in a positive sum, that is, Iran having a nuclear programme that would never lead to nuclear weapons."

Drawing a parallel to the peace talks on Syria, Dr Zarif pointed out that even before the parties had reached the negotiating table, there were demands for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

"For the past two-and-a-half years, people would insist that the precondition for negotiations is that Bashar al-Assad should not be part of the negotiations. Now they have abandoned that. They have accepted that Bashar al-Assad could be a part of it. Now they are insisting that the outcome of the negotiation should be that Bashar al-Assad should not be a part of the future of Syria," he said.

"That is for the Syrians in the negotiating room to decide. That is the purpose of the negotiations. If you decided that, what is there to negotiate at all? Everybody would go home happy if you could decide that before the negotiations started," he exclaimed.

"So we have to realise and come to move in the direction of finding a solution," said Dr Zarif. "Because if we decide to determine the future of Syria before we get to the negotiating table, we will never be able to do that."

The topic of Dr Zarif's talk was "Paradigm shift from a zero sum game to a win-win solution: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) experience to better understand and resolve regional and global problems".

Dr Zarif is in Singapore on a three-day visit at the invitation of Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. During the visit, he held talks with top Singaporean leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on bilateral and economic cooperation between the two nations.

He leaves Singapore on Wednesday (March 9) for Brunei, the next leg of his tour of six South-east Asian and Pacific nations (Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia).