Iran clings to Assad to protect interests

Friday 02/10/2015
The interests that bind

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.”