Much media attention has been given to Iran’s invitation to this security conference, which was a notable departure from prior such gatherings, from which Iran had been excluded at the urging of the US and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s acceptance of that invitation was also regarded as unexpected by some analysts, and both developments have raised questions about the respective motivations of the various relevant parties.
An article published by Al Jazeera on Thursday alleged that the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian opposition all felt compelled to allow for Iran’s attendance, given the deepening Iranian influence in the conflict. In the minds of some, this influence and its recent explicit Russian backing makes it difficult to exclude Iran from a negotiated political solution. Other perspectives maintain, however, that the eviction of Iran from the conflict is a prerequisite for any such solution.
The central questions at hand in resolving these two perspectives are whether Iran can be convinced to drop its all-out support for the Assad regime and whether it is willing to actually negotiate with the international community in light of this security conference. The Al Jazeera article suggests that the answer to the latter question is yes, owing to changing relationships following the July 14 nuclear agreement. But there is certainly evidence to contradict this, with one example being the article’s own acknowledgment of Iran’s more transparent support of Assad and its high level coordination with Russia.
According to Fox News, this coordination recently expanded to include joint missions to ship arms to Syrian forces. Over the past 10 days, Russian cargo planes have reportedly delivered two shipments per day, with these efforts being jointly directed by Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
While such activities do not necessarily prove Iran unwilling to cooperate with international resolutions to the crisis over the long term, they certainly do run counter to the American position that the Assad regime must eventually come to an end if there is to be any political solution.
In a trend that is worrying to critics of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, that position appears to have softened somewhat in recent days, with US officials now saying that they would be willing to allow the Assad regime to hold power until the end of the Civil War and then voluntarily step down after the fact. Critics naturally perceive Iran’s invitation to the security conference as an example of that softening position, but on Thursday the US State Department presented a different view, according to Reuters. A department official indicated that the motive for inviting Iran to the conference involved gauging the Islamic Republic’s willingness to concede to the end of Assad’s rule.
It remains to be seen what actions might be taken if Iran does not make such a concession, but US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter indicated this week that the Pentagon was committed to expanding its support for moderate Syrian rebel groups. The limits of this support remain an important question mark for critics, however, especially given that the opposition has not been invited to participate in the Vienna security conference.
But the opposition has commented upon that conference. On Thursday, the Kuwait Times quoted a member of a Free Syrian Army affiliate group as saying that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had accepted Iran’s presence at the security conference not out of necessity or because of serious questions about Iran’s cooperation, but because they already knew that Iran would not cooperate to bring about the end of the Assad regime.
“Iran is part of the problem and not the solution, and its participation in the meeting will prove that to the world,” said Bashar al-Zoubi of the Yarmouk Army.
Even before the conference began, evidence emerged to support this view. In reporting on the bilateral meeting between Kerry and Zarif, Reuters pointed out that the Iranian Foreign Minister had declared his unwillingness to even use that meeting for its assumed purpose. He said that he would only talk with Kerry about the nuclear issue, which has ostensibly been settled pending Iran’s implementation of the provisions regarding restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.
This declaration is in keeping with an earlier pronouncement by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei barring officials from engaging in any further negotiations with the US, for fear that warming relations outside of the nuclear sphere would open up the Islamic Republic to political and economic “infiltration.”
This fear of any Western influence also supports the notion that Iranian authorities will resist cooperation over the Syrian situation. Iran’s Foreign Minister for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs, Hossein Amir Abdollahian said as much on Thursday, according to the Indo-Asian News Service. He was quoted by Iranian state media as saying that “no change has taken place in Iran’s stance pertaining to its support to Syria” and that Iran would not respond to any pressure aimed at removing Assad from power.
Tehran’s official statements have referred to all opposition groups as terrorists while insisting that the future leadership of the country must depend on the will of the Syrian people. But this has been generally disregarded as rhetoric, and an editorial in Newsweek said on Thursday that “popular consent in Syria is the last thing that Tehran wants to facilitate.” This is largely because of the existing relationship between the Assad regime and the Iran-controlled terrorist group Hezbollah.
The Lebanese paramilitary has expanded its presence in Syria during the Civil War, taking up what many assume to be permanent positions in the Golan Heights, near the border with Israel. The Newsweek editorial observes that it is only the Assad regime and not the Syrian people that provide support for Hezbollah’s use of the country as a base for supply and training. Only when this changes, the editorial suggests, would the Iranian regime concede to the possible end of Assad’s rule.