Talks between the US and Saudi Arabia have reportedly convinced Iran’s major regional rival to accept this situation, albeit begrudgingly. The Saudis are also expected to be in attendance at the conference, along with representatives from the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including Russia, which has sided with Iran in defending the Assad regime.
It remains to be seen whether the Syrian government or its opposition will have a place at the table, but the Western backed rebel groups have certainly spoken out about the decision to include Iran in the attempt to reach a political solution. Reuters reported on Wednesday that Syrian National Coalition Vice President Hisham Marwa declared that Iran’s unwavering support for the Assad regime could obstruct a political solution, which must involve the end of the Assad regime.
The official US position has been in agreement with the coalition on this point, but that position has softened slightly as the Obama administration has warmed to the idea of allowing Iran and Russia into the discussion. The US executive now says that it would be willing to accept a solution in which the Syrian dictator remains in power past the negotiated end of the Syrian Civil War, but steps down soon afterward.
Iran’s official statements have maintained that the future leadership of the country must be left in the hands of the Syrian people, but international analysts are doubtful that Tehran would ever accept Assad’s ouster, unless he was replaced by a leader that is similarly friendly with or beholden to Iran.
Such an outcome would not be without precedent, however. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was removed from power under international pressure related to his affiliation with Iran and his support for the consolidation of power into Shiite hands. His successor, Haider al-Abadi was regarded as a better candidate for the head of a unity government, but he has maintained close ties with Tehran and has been described by Iranian dissidents living in Iraq as being no better for the country than Maliki.
In absence of another pro-Iran leader in Syria, it is likely that Tehran would put its political and financial resources behind retaining his political hold on the country after convincing the West to accept a solution in which he survives the military threat from moderate rebels centered in south of the country.
Within current circumstances, Assad’s survival seems likely. The Los Angeles Times reports that General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that coordinated Iranian and Russia support for the Assad regime had given it the upper hand over US-backed rebels. These statements represent apparent contradiction of the White House’s positive assessment of the situation in recent weeks.
But there are also indications that the US government is aware of the faltering state of the rebellion and is taking steps to counteract Iranian and Russian influence on the conflict. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged that Russia appears to be doubling down on its support for Assad, and he indicated that in the next several weeks the Pentagon will focus on providing more arms and other support for moderate rebel groups as well as Kurdish forces and Turkish security forces that are opposed to Assad’s continued rule.
Thus, despite its latest outreach to Iran, the US still is showing some interest in confronting the situation directly. Given this fact, Iran appears unwilling to actively cooperate with the security conference, even as it prepared to send representatives. Middle East Confidential reported on Wednesday that Iranian officials had replied defiantly to the State Department announcement regarding Iran’s invitation to the security conference.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham accused the US of “repetitious statements” that “run counter to the existing realities.” Another official disregarded portions of the State Department announcement as “directives” and emphasized that Iran would pursue its own ends in the crisis, without entertaining the would-be influence of foreign powers.
Such expressions of aversion to international cooperation are regular fixtures of Iranian authorities’ public statements. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made headlines two weeks ago when he said that he would permit no new negotiations with the US, asserting that such interactions open the door to cultural and political “infiltration” of the Islamic Republic. Actual negotiations with the US in the Syria security conference could thus be regarded as defiance of the ultimate authority in Iranian affairs – an unlikely move by a strictly controlled foreign ministry.
These latest examples of hostility toward the West can be expected to reinforce distrust among opponents of the Iranian regime, whose perspectives have a great deal of sympathy among Western constituencies. This was made clear during the debate of the Iran nuclear deal, which was regarded by critics as little more than a series of concessions to Tehran. It has continued to be made clear since then, with the Times of Israel reported on Wednesday, for instance, that recent polls show that 43 percent of the American public would have supported threatening a government shutdown in an attempt to block the deal.