Iranian authorities have realized that their longtime ally in Syria is on the way out and have held talks with members of the opposition about a transitional regime, reports the Los Angeles Times. From the piece (with excellent reporting from Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels) it appears that Iran’s government is still not willing to break with Assad, but is increasingly and reluctantly coming to conclude that efforts to save him are doomed.
For those concerned about a possible US-Iranian military conflict — which is to say everyone in the world who cares about war, peace and the price of oil and gas — this is an important moment of truth. The loss of its key ally in Syria will bring dramatic changes to Iran’s position. Will the ruling mullahs and their allies decide that it’s time to call off the confrontation before Tehran is even weaker and more isolated, or will they double down on nukes and a hard line in the belief that nothing else can save them? One way or another, the course of the war in Syria will help determine whether the US finds itself in yet another Middle East war, and watching the Iranians process what looks like the downward spiral in Assad’s fortunes offers clues as to how the larger drama will go.
We aren’t at the decision point yet. At this point the Iranians don’t seem to have completely accepted that their ally cannot survive and the debate in Tehran over Syria policy isn’t over. The government looks to be floundering around hoping to save something out of the wreckage. Experts and officials talk about preserving the “structure of the Syrian state,” presumably hoping for Assadism without Assad: an Alawite dominated state structure that would continue to align with Iran while offering restive Sunnis more economic and political space. The current situation on the ground makes it unlikely that the Sunni opposition would settle for this now, but if the government’s military situation stabilizes, Tehran seems to hope that international pressures for a negotiated, compromise solution would grow.
This appears to match roughly with Russia’s current vision for the war. Like Tehran, Moscow does not want to see a revolutionary Syria join a Sunni bloc in the Middle East and fears the export of Sunni jihadis into its own volatile Caucasus region. And like Iran, Russia has long term investments in the Assad regime, with decades of close economic, military and human ties. Russia sees itself as the protector of Syria’s Orthodox Christians as Iran wants to protect the Alawites; both minorities could face tough times under a new revenge-minded Sunni regime.
The fall of the Assad regime would be a blow to both countries, but Iran has much more at stake. As we’ve noted in past posts, Syria is crucial to Iran’s grand design in the Middle East; it is the keystone in the arch of Shiite states Iran has sought to build across the Fertile Crescent from Iraq through Lebanon. It was also the means by which Iran was able to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and construct an anti-Israel alliance with Hamas that helped offset Iran’s deep disadvantages on the Arab street, making it look less like a “Persian” and “heretical” anti-Arab power and more like a leader of global Islam in the fight against the west.
The growing likelihood that decades of building this position will end in catastrophe represents the greatest threat to the Iranian regime since its failure in the Iran-Iraq war. Already Hamas has rejected Syria and distanced itself from Iran; Hezbollah is singing small and thinking more about protecting its suddenly vulnerable position in Lebanon than about joining a regional Shiite surge.
What Iran may fear most now may well be that a Sunni Syria, chaotic with nutjob jihadis and radical Saudi and Qatari backed factions on the upswing, will take the Sunni-Shiite war to the next level and rearm the Iraqi Sunnis for another round of civil war there. This seems likely; indeed there are signs that it has already begun.
The smouldering Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq is ready to rekindle, but this time the Sunnis may count on support from Turkey, ‘liberated’ Syria and the Gulf, while the Shiites can’t look to the United States. That will certainly create headaches for Iran, and might well lead to a power sharing arrangement in Baghdad that would seriously reduce Iran’s influence there as well.
Put that together with a tightening sanctions noose, and the Iranian regime would be in a tough situation with few viable options. Not only the democratic opposition but both Sunni and Shiite ethnic minorities in Iran itself (where ethnic Persians represent only about half the population) might at that point start attracting significant outside support as Iran’s regional enemies sought to curb its power for good. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran are all multi-ethnic, multi-faith countries with artificial frontiers; who knows what the map will look like in ten or twenty years?
An external situation this dismal has domestic implications. The factions in the Iranian power structure who supported the course of confrontation with the west and expansion across the Fertile Crescent can’t avoid a loss of prestige as the bankruptcy of their strategic vision becomes clear. The Supreme Leader and Guide of the Iranian state cannot separate himself from criticism over this massive policy failure; the strategy has his fingerprints all over it.
When it saw itself as a rising power, Iran sought a “grand bargain” with the United States based on Iranian regional supremacy. That was unrealistic and one sided; flushed with success and spiritual pride, Iran developed grandiose and inflated ideas about its world power that could not be the basis for serious agreements with the US. The question now is whether Iran’s leaders can bring themselves to accept a more realistic bargain with Washington in which the renunciation of nuclear ambitions and limits on Iran’s regional role would reflect the serious setbacks that have befallen the Islamic Republic.
It’s not in America’s best interests to push Iran to the breaking point. Regardless of whether or not we like a particular Iranian regime, the country of Iran is important to the balance of the Middle East and to any hope of geopolitical stability there. A sensible bargain with Iran would serve America well, but at this point the burden is on the Iranian leadership to look at its situation realistically, draw the appropriate conclusions, and reach out to the United States with proposals.
Otherwise, America’s best policy option seems clear: more of the same. Push Assad downhill, press Iraq for a fairer internal policy and a more non-aligned external one, support a factional rebalancing in Lebanon that encourages Hezbollah to transition from a revolutionary arm of Iranian foreign policy into a Lebanese political movement with a strictly domestic agenda, tighten sanctions and hold the line on nukes.
A bargain with a weakened Iran would give the United States some welcome strategic flexibility in the Middle East, and our current course is not without its dangers and drawbacks. Whether the Supreme Leader can or would make this kind of bargain is open to question; a reversal of course this fundamental would seem to imply some kind of profound political change inside Iran and it would likely be bitterly resisted by factions closely identified with the policy of confrontation and revolution. But whether real agreement is possible or not, it’s in America’s interest to hold the door open, and to make clear to the Iranian establishment (including conservatives, moderate reformers and those who want more fundamental constitutional change) that America’s fundamental problem is with Iranian policy, not the Iranian state or Iranian religion. Changes in Iran’s policies can lead to changes in Iranian-American relations that would benefit both sides.
Yet despite the appearance of rebel momentum in Syria, it is still too early to be certain that Assad is on his way out. The rebels have problems of their own, and the longer the war the more opportunities for divisions, brutality, corruption and incompetence to take their toll on the fragile rebel coalition and its civilian support. It is only when and if all hope disappears in Iran that either Assad or his political structure can survive that the real policy debates will start.