Recent Iranian statements allegedly trend in the direction of a similar solution, although they fall well short of endorsing Assad’s pre-determined removal from power. Officially, the Iranian government has maintained that a political solution would entail the Syrian people making a free choice of their post-war leadership. But unofficially, Iranian forces are understood to be fighting specifically for the retention of Assad’s rule and the associated guarantee of the continued presence of Iran and Hezbollah in the country.
Thus, reports of a softening of Iran’s position on Assad have met with skepticism. Reuters pointed out on Friday that representatives of the Syrian opposition had described the new statements as mere trickery. They are joined by other critics of the Iranian regime who believe that it will not ultimately accept Assad’s removal unless he is replaced by another leader who is equally friendly to Iran.
In a separate Reuters report, an unnamed senior Iranian official may have hinted at the idea that the leadership understands this to be its only other option. He told the news agency that there is currently no candidate to replace Assad, but that this might change in the future. Such remarks recall an arguably similar situation in Iraq in the wake of the sectarian conflict that was largely initiated by Iran and that led to the rise of the Islamic State.
As that situation unfolded, Western powers called for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down, on the understanding that his close affiliation with Shiite Iran and his consolidation of power into a few Shiite hands had helped to create the widespread discord. But Iran resisted the transition until such time as a replacement was identified whom many critics allege is similarly beholden to the Iranian regime. And indeed, Iran’s presence in Iraq has remained as transparent under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as under his predecessor.
It is likely that Iran is currently angling for a similar transition in Syria, from the leadership of one close ally to that of another close ally. And this conclusion is supported by evidence that Iran plans to be a leading voice not only in the political conclusion of the Syrian Civil War but also in the transitional phase following its end.
This week, Iranian delegates were invited to an international security conference on the Syrian crisis, marking a reversal of former American and Saudi policies that had blocked the Islamic Republic from similar meetings. On Thursday, the State Department indicated that the new policy was aimed at gauging Iran’s willingness to compromise. But Reuters reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif boasted on Thursday that the invitation signifies Western acceptance of a durable Iranian role in the situation.
“Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present, there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis,” Zarif said, suggesting that the direct Iranian intervention in the conflict had made it difficult, if not impossible to separate the future of Syria from the current Iranian role.
And the continued Iranian presence in Syria would surely influence any near-term elections, which would be impossible to hold fairly in any event, according to the Syrian opposition. Reuters points out that the Assad government held elections last year to reassert its claim to leadership of the country, but that these elections were recognized as a farce by virtually all international observers, since voting could only be conducted in regions still under the control of the regime.
Six months is unlikely to be enough time to restore sufficient stability to carry out truly representative elections, especially given that the four year civil war has already displaced some 10 million people. And even if these people were to be returned to their polling places, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t be subject to pressure from affiliates of Assad and Tehran.
As part of its contribution to the conflict, Iran has deployed the Lebanese terrorist organization to Syria, giving it what are widely assumed to be permanent bases of operations in the western areas of the country, especially the Golan Heights. Its presence could give Iran opportunities to direct Hezbollah to put pressure on the election process, while retaining plausible deniability for the regime and thus insulating itself from much international condemnation.
This is an especially worrying scenario for critics of the Obama administration, who tend to believe that the current US government will utilize any plausible excuse to avoid confronting the Iranian regime directly. An editorial published in the Weekly Standard on Friday pointed out that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had recently threatened to derail the July 14 Iran nuclear agreement should the US take any punitive or coercive action on any aspects of Iran’s behavior, be it the nuclear file, human rights, or support of terrorism abroad.
The editorial went on to say, “it is unlikely Obama will do anything that might jeopardize what the White House calls his key foreign policy initiative.” A Washington Post editorial that was also published on Friday took this criticism even further, describing the nuclear deal as “Iran’s all-access, backstage diplomatic pass,” which spares the regime from being challenged over its “death to America” rallies, its human rights violations, and its pursuit of regional hegemony through intervention in Syria and elsewhere.
The Weekly Standard pointed out that House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul wrote a letter to president Obama earlier this week calling attention to these same abuses and urging the White House to take “concrete action in order to send a strong message to the Iranian regime that its egregious actions will have consequences.” But by inviting the regime to the Syria security conference, the Obama administration has opened itself up to criticism that it is moving in the opposite direction.
McCaul also highlighted a range of threats that high-ranking Iranian officials have issued against the US and its allies in the months since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. “Such provocations are further proof that the Iranian regime does not negotiate in good faith and will not moderate its behavior,” the letter stated.
And on Friday there emerged new evidence of persistent hostility toward Western entities. The Associated Press reported that a Dubai-based businessman by the name of Siamak Namazadi had become the fourth American citizen to be held hostage in Iran (or the fifth if one includes Robert Levison, who disappeared in the country in 2007). The report at last attaches a name to an arrest that was originally reported by IranWire on October 15 and picked up by Iran News Update.
Namazadi joins Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and most recently Jason Rezaian, who was convicted this month of unspecified national security charges after being held in Iranian jails for 15 months. That widely disputed conviction and Namazadi’s unexplained arrest reflect continued hostility and the supreme leader’s expressed paranoia about Western political and economic influence on the country.
Naturally, critics of current Western policy will seize on these incidents as further evidence that the Islamic Republic is not prepared to negotiate in good faith with the US or its allies, either over the lives of dual citizens or over the future of Syria and other unstable areas of the Middle East.
In fact, critics have accused Khamenei of using his threats of withdrawal from the nuclear deal as an attempt to extract new concessions long after negotiations have been concluded. If this is accurate and if the strategy proves successful, it stands to reason that the regime could utilize the same strategy to revise its position on elections in Syria once Assad’s rule has been preserved past the end of the civil war.