It was reported on Tuesday that the latest talks among representatives of Russia, Turkey, and Iran had resulted in no breakthrough on the topic of a framework for a new Syrian constitution, which would ostensibly restore stability to the country after a devastating civil war that has lasted more than seven years.
Meanwhile, other reports indicate that there had been substantial discord between Iran and its negotiating partners in the run-up to a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The evident gridlock in these and other proceeding may be indicative of the international isolation that Iran is facing or is likely to face in the near future.
Al Jazeera’s report on the tripartite meeting on Syria quoted the United Nations’ Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura as saying, “Constructive exchanges and substantive discussions took place on issues relevant to the establishment and functioning of a constitutional committee.” But the report also seemed to indicate that these discussions were mainly focused on resolving differences between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, particularly regarding which groups would make up the committee and whether the proposed arrangements would give an undue advantage to the government of Bashar al-Assad.
What was not discussed in the report was the issue of whether such a one-sided outcome is supported or opposed by the foreign negotiating powers. However, various earlier reports have suggested that Tehran is intent on providing the Assad regime with an advantage, particularly by contributing to the conflict in ways that promote the destruction of all major rebel groups before a ceasefire can be concluded.
Turkey supported the rebels at the height of the civil war but has lately focused its strategy on containing Kurdish separatist groups. But Iran and Russia have both been backing the Assad government throughout the course of the war. Nonetheless, it has been variously suggested that their interests might diverge, especially in light of their contrary relationships with neighboring Israel. This places the two erstwhile allies in potentially different roles during the negotiating process, as has been underscored by reports that Iran-backed forces in the civil war broke previous ceasefire agreements as part of their effort to wipe out the rebels.
Russia, by contrast, has seemingly taken a serious interest in promoting cessation of hostilities, even going so far as to station its own troops in the border region between Syria and Israel, in order to supplant the presence of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In light of these and other indicators of discord between the two negotiating powers, it remains to be seen whether the apparent failure of the latest round of discussions will contribute to further growth of their divide.
If so, those divisions might also fuel further discord against the backdrop of the OPEC talks, or vice versa. Although Russia is not an OPEC member state, it is a leading oil producer and a party to the output production agreement that will be the main focus of the meeting on Friday. Iran was initially exempt from the terms of that 2016 deal, having argued that it should be given time to restore its production to the levels that Iranian officials claimed to have been in place at the time that international sanctions went into full effect, years earlier. Now Iran is opposing any change in the reduction agreement that only affected other signatories, while Russia is advocating for a near-complete reversal of the cuts.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the main regional rival of the Islamic Republic, is pushing for a somewhat less drastic increase in the permitted output levels, in order to better compete with other markets like the US and to reduce the risk of shortfalls as global demand increases.
The notion of competition with the American industries might be expected to spur cooperation from the notoriously anti-Western regime in Tehran, but the proposed changes come at a time when Iran is facing resurgent US sanctions that are boxing the Islamic Republic out of many foreign markets. Under these conditions, it is clear that the oil industry wants to be able to sell as much oil as it can, and that goal would seemingly be undermined by an increase in competition from regional neighbors and adversaries.
Consequently, Iran appears intent on confronting the US entirely on its own. Indeed, the Associated Press characterized Tehran’s rejection of a new agreement specifically as an instance of “lashing out” at the White House over its appeal to OPEC to reduce global oil prices by increasing output. The same report also points out that such an increase would be a boon to Saudi Arabia, meaning that the long-term outcome could be a meaningful shift in the “balance of power in the region.”
In advance of that shift, however, the Iranians might be expected to try to project force and attempt to strong-arm their OPEC partners and other relevant parties. As a possible example of this, Reuters reports that Iran has been insisting that OPEC use Friday’s meeting to debate and ultimately adopt countermeasures against US sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg acknowledges the apparent tension between Iran and Russia in this area, reporting that Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh had announced that he planned to leave the meeting before the other OPEC member states met with non-OPEC powers.
For many critics of the Islamic Republic, these tension may raise hopes that Russia can be convinced to buy into international strategies aimed at containing Iranian activities in general.
Tehran’s impact on the Syrian Civil War is indicative of a broader regional influence that has been deeply concerning to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other countries of the Middle East. Some of their Western allies have made the reduction of that influence a leading goal of their regional strategy, and the US in particular has demonstrated optimism that exposing the effects of that influence might convince the international community to take action.
The Saudis have at times adopted a similar strategy. On Tuesday, the AP reported that the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen had shown reporters a range of heavy weapons and military components recovered from the southern Arabian country, wherein Iran is backing Houthi rebels in their fight against the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. The demonstration was reminiscent of a similar press conference headed by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley last year.
The Saudi demonstration also came just days after the UN released a new report confirming the presence of Iranian components and Iranian designs in weapons used by the Houthi, as well as in weapons recovered from the nearby island nation of Bahrain, the location of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. The report identified ballistic missiles among other advanced materiel, as well as detailing evidence of Iranian attempts to procure additional military equipment from abroad.
According to the UN report, as summarized by the Washington Post, it cannot be said with certainty when the components in question made their way to the Houthi from Iran. But if the transfer occurred any time after January 2016, it would be in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and would no doubt add even greater legitimacy to the efforts to isolate Iran globally, perhaps with the assistance of some of its former friends and allies.