The recent inclusion of Iranian delegates in international security conferences on the Syrian crisis has fueled criticism of the US president, especially in light of Tehran’s predictable refusal to compromise with its traditional rivals and enemies during those discussions. By some accounts, the purpose of the White House conceding to Iran’s presence was to determine whether its leadership could be compelled to accept the removal from power of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But that question has been answered with statements from multiple Iranian officials reiterating support for the Syrian regime.
Obama’s political opponents note that he failed to take aggressive action in Syria after Assad violated the White House’s red lines by using chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. And while the US has maintained opposition to the Assad regime in public statements, it also changed its position in advance of the latest security conference by saying that Assad did not need to step down immediately, but might keep power for as much as six months after the end of the Syrian Civil War.
Naturally, this has led some to worry that the Obama administration will scale back its policy even further, especially at a time when Iran’s is becoming even more entrenched. But the administration is notably unwilling to give in at the present moment, as indicated by a speech that Secretary of State John Kerry delivered on Thursday at the US Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank.
According to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Kerry insisted that no political solution could be reached in the Syrian security conference that did not involve the ouster or voluntary abdication of Bashar al-Assad. Maintenance of the status quo, he suggested, would mean that the conflict would never end.
The report also points out that this position contradicts not only Iran but Russia as well. But other reports have raised questions about the durability of Russia’s support for the Assad regime. Although Moscow dispatched its air force to the conflict last month, giving Iran an opportunity to deepen its own involvement, the Russians are reportedly more interested in safeguarding their bases in Syria than the Assad regime per se. If they can do this without further degrading relations between Russia and the West, this may be preferable.
But this may also depend on how a change of Russian policy would affect Iranian-Russian relations, as well as on how serious Moscow is about maintaining the current strength of that alliance. This also is an open question, although it is clear that Russian-Iranian cooperation has been growing rapidly in recent months.
An article published Thursday in Armenia Now pointed to some of the economic dimensions of this cooperation, including agreements for the future transfer of natural gas via pipelines passing through Armenia or Azerbaijan. Russian energy giant Gazprom is planning to work with Tehran over the next three years to more than double the capacity of these pipelines.
But one expert quoted by Armenia Now argued that projects like this represent only limited “areas of cooperation” and that divergent interests for the two countries would prevent the establishment of a “strategic union” between them.
However, the emerging areas of cooperation could have a high degree of value of each side of the partnership, and this could provide incentives for continued cooperation in multiple areas. Retuers reported on Thursday that the Russian government was in talks to provide a five billion dollar loan to Iran. At the same time, Russia’s Vnesheconombank was similarly considering a two billion dollar loan to the central bank of Iran.
These sorts of investments arguably provide Iran with cover for boastful comments on its economic prospects. Beginning in earnest around the time of last summer’s nuclear agreement, which will lead to tens of billions of dollars in new assets for the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials have periodically been issuing statements pronouncing that there would be rapid growth in various sectors of the economy, especially oil and gas exports.
On Thursday, a subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company declared that the nation’s exports of lightweight oil condensates would double to 600,000 barrels per day over the coming year, according to Reuters. Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has cited similar projections for exports of crude oil. These claims serve to make Iran look like a highly attractive investment opportunity and also to make it seem more capable of resisting foreign pressure, particularly from the United States.
And as has been widely reported over the past two weeks, Tehran appears to be utilizing every justification for a defiant attitude toward Western policies and preferences. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been especially aggressive in spreading anti-American rhetoric, as by ordering Iranian officials to avoid all negotiations with the US and by ordering Iranian businesses to avoid the import of American-made consumer goods.
But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, embraced as a moderate by some Western leaders, has also gotten in on the act. On Thursday, Voice of America News reported that Rouhani spoke to Italian reporters on the topic of Iranian-US rapprochement and said that relations between the two traditional enemies would only improve if the US changed its policies, corrected past “errors,” and apologized to the Iranian people. He did not elaborate on the expected nature of this apology or these changes.
In some speeches regarding Iran, President Obama has acknowledged that Iranians have reason to resent past US foreign activities, including the 1953 CIA-supported coup. Although these remarks indicate a very different set of policies for the current White House, the office of the Iranian supreme leader released a video last week presenting Obama’s acknowledgments as “confessions” of wrongdoing.
But Rouhani’s latest remarks implied that the 1953 coup was not among the “errors” that he expects the US to correct. Those remarks specifically referred to the 36-year history of the Islamic Republic – a period that effectively began with the hostage-taking of 52 American citizens at the US embassy in Tehran, after which they were held for 444 days.
Neither this nor the deaths of American servicemen in Iranian terrorist attacks were mentioned in Rouhani’s discussion of past “errors” and expected changes of policy. The one-sided remarks suggest just how far apart Iran and the US remain even as the White House attempts to pursue a policy of rapprochement and compromise.