Iran has publicly declared that the future of the Assad regime must be left up to the Iranian people, but most observers have taken this to actually signify that Iran is trying to safeguard its established ally. It is generally understood that Assad would easily win a presidentially election for the simple fact that half of the Syrian population has been displaced and much of that that remains is under tight control by the regime.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, once again reiterated on Sunday that the ouster of Assad would remain a red line for Iran’s negotiations over the ongoing crisis. In October, Iran was invited to the Vienna security conference on this issue, in contrast to previous such conferences at which the US and Saudi Arabia had banned such participation from Assad’s main backer.
Al Jazeera pointed out that Velayati’s remarks expressed familiar talking points about Assad’s legitimacy as the elected representative of the Syrian people. But the report also acknowledged Iran’s role in the country, implying that the retention of Assad as president equates to the expansion of Iranian regional influence.
This same conclusion was addressed by Ya Libnan on Monday when it considered the question of what sort of replacement Tehran might consider for Assad if it were compelled to do so. The article explained Iran’s red line position by saying that in Assad’s absence, “Tehran would need a candidate acceptable to a number of key constituencies within the Syrian regime,” and no such candidate may be available.
The article went on to suggest that Iran may nonetheless be planning for the possibility that Assad’s leadership will not be able to survive the current political pressures. In that case, Iran would be engaged in a multiple-part strategy for finding a suitable replacement – a strategy that would “Above all, focus on the continued building of a new Iranianized military and intelligence “deep state” in Syria that guarantees freedom of movement for the IRGC and Hezbollah and long-term resistance to Western, Saudi, or Israeli power.”
In this sense, Ya Libnan indicates that the probable end game for Iran in either scenario is the preservation of its influence, whether through Assad himself, through an as-yet-unidentified alternative, or by wielding so much power over Syrian security that any future leader would have no choice but to ally with Tehran and especially with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But since the international talks over Assad’s future are still unresolved, it is not yet clear which option the Iranians will have to pursue. The US and its allies have mostly maintained that Assad must be removed if there is to be any hope for moderate rebel groups to support the Syrian government and cooperate with it in a fight against the growing threat from ISIL. But this position has recently appear to be somewhat prone to vacillation.
Al Jazeera reported on Monday that both French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and US Secretary of State John Kerry had made recent statements indicating that they would no longer consider Assad’s ouster necessary prior to a political transition, if at all. Some analysts have speculated that France might give up on the Assad issue in the interest of focusing narrowly on ISIL after the November 13 Paris terror attacks. Others have suggested that the Obama administration could choose to concede the issue in order to retain the current policy of rapprochement with Iran.
On the other hand, the US has generally been resistant to Iran’s pressures up to this point, maintaining that the status quo cannot remain in place for long if there is to be a permanent solution to the crisis. By contrast, Russia has generally sided with Iran, but has also reportedly been targeted by the US and its allies as a potential source of leverage in the event that Moscow is convinced that the Assad presidency no longer serves its interests.
Ya Libnan indicated that this remains a viable possibility and that if Iran is ultimately convinced to relinquish Assad, it will likely be Russia that does the convincing. At the same time, this will depend on the outcome of the current series of security conferences that began in Vienna. Reuters reported on Monday that the process has been aimed at bringing rebel groups and the Syrian government together for formal talks by the January 1.
In an apparent attempt to strengthen the mutual positions of those rebel groups ahead of this meeting, Saudi Arabia has scheduled a gathering of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh on Tuesday. Such measures by Iran’s main regional rival may in turn increase the pressure on Iran to give into the US and its allies on the Assad issue, rather than vice versa.
Indeed, Iran appears to recognize the danger that this move poses to its position in the ongoing negotiations. Reuters notes that the regime has been “riled” by the announcement and has responded to it by asserting that it is an effort on the Saudis’ part to harm the Vienna peace process and cause its ultimate failure. But given the persistent disagreements between the two sides, failure from one perspective may in fact be success from another.