Iran clings to Assad to protect interests
NEW YORK - Iran has made little secret of its goal to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power. Still, analysts say Tehran is showing signs that it may be open to ousting Assad should it be included in the West’s talks on resolving the Syrian conflict and allowed to maintain its regional clout.
Iran has been a staunch backer of Assad during the four years of war and backs the operations in Syria of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has given Assad crucial support.
However, Iran, which in July sealed a landmark nuclear deal with six major world powers, has indicated it would be open for further talks with the West — foremost on Syria, according to analysts.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani, addressing the UN General Assembly, called for a “new era” in relations with Western powers and added that the nuclear pact “is not the final objective but a development which can and should be the basis of further achievements to come”. Rohani earlier told an audience of US think-tanks and journalists that “of course” the Syrian government needed reform. Still, he stressed that the top effort in Syria should be to fight radical militants such as the Islamic State (ISIS).
Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at Washington’s Middle East Institute, said: “It’s not Assad the man that Iran cares about, it’s about whether it will be one of the dominant foreign players in Syria. Iran does not want to lose out to Saudi Arabia, which is its chief regional rival.”
Vatanka added that if Iran feels confident that it won’t be left out of talks over Syria, “then the fate of Assad can be up for discussion”.
Iran stands to gain politically and economically from a rapprochement with the West. Tehran was excluded from two previous UN-mediated conferences on Syria.
US leaders, which have had reservations about working with Iran outside of the nuclear deal, indicate a readiness to involve Iran in settling the conflict in Syria.
US President Barack Obama, speaking at the UN General Assembly, said the United States “is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran” to resolve the Syrian conflict.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking September 26th before meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he viewed the UN General Assembly as a “major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues of the Middle East”.
Iran may also gain economically from a compromise on Syria. Indeed, the country has been counting on a flood of foreign investment following the nuclear deal.
“Iran is setting a new course showing that it’s open for business and looking for investments,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, director of the Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation. “By supporting Syria, they are seen as a destabilising force and risk undermining the picture of Iran as setting a new path forward.”
Still, Iran may not backtrack on its support for Assad so quickly. Indeed, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in early September, lambasted closer ties with the United States. “I have not authorised negotiations, and [we] will not hold talks with them,” he was cited by Iran’s Press TV as saying.
Analysts say Iran may not be prepared to have Assad ousted because of fears that his replacement may not be as receptive to its interests.
“Iran cannot hope that any successor to Assad will be as friendly to its interests as Assad has been, especially when it comes to Hezbollah,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Serwer said Syria provides Iran with a crucial link to Hezbollah. Much of the arms supplies from Iran to Hezbollah pass through Syria. Hezbollah helps Iran by posing a threat to Israel — which Iran views as an arch-enemy — on Israel’s border with Lebanon.
Serwer said Iran’s influence in Syria will significantly diminish should Assad lose power. “Iran will maintain a lot of influence in Syria so long as Assad remains in power,” he added. “After that, Tehran is likely to lose influence rapidly.”