Iran’s centres of power appear divided on the fate of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. As talks on a political solution to the Syrian crisis reconvene tomorrow in Vienna, these differences are likely to become more apparent.
On 30 October, foreign ministers from seventeen states gathered in Vienna to discuss ‘the grave situation in Syria and how to bring about an end to the violence as soon as possible’. This constituted the third attempt (after Geneva I in June 2012 and Geneva II in January 2014) to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, but, unlike the two previous diplomatic rounds, this time Iran, a pivotal player in the Syrian war, was invited to sit at the table.
The Iranian leadership, which had expressed an interest in being included in the political talks about Syria as far back as 2012, hailed its inclusion in the negotiations, stressing how there were no preconditions set for Iran’s involvement in the Vienna round. Tehran was in fact invited to attend the talks despite the country’s refusal to accept the Geneva Communiqué approved in June 2012. The Communiqué included the establishment of a transitional governing body with full powers as a key step in the transition process – an option which was unwelcome by Tehran as it would force Assad to step aside and on which the Iranian leadership seems to be currently divided.
After the comprehensive deal on the Iranian nuclear programme in July, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian travelled to a number of capitals to discuss a new agenda on Syria. The subsequent four-point plan proposed by Tehran pushed for a revised version of the strategy originally presented by Iran in 2014, and called for an immediate ceasefire, followed by constitutional reforms to safeguard Syrian minorities, free and internationally supervised elections and the formation of a national unity government based on the new constitutional institutions.
Iran, as all other countries attending the Vienna talks, subscribed to the nine clauses of the Communiqué released on 30 October, according to which the participants agreed on a ceasefire and on an UN-led transition respecting Syria’s unity and sovereignty by facilitating the establishment of a ‘credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance’ – all points which are in line with the country’s four-step plan. According to the participating delegates, however, no breakthrough was ultimately found on the fate of Assad, which allegedly constitutes the main sticking point between the two opposing camps involved in the Syrian conflict. Initially, unofficial reports suggested a compromise among parties regarding a six-month transition phase, followed by elections to decide the fate of the Syrian president within eighteen months, adding the calendar had been proposed by the US. Iranian officials, however, quickly dismissed the news. They stressed instead that, as a result of Tehran’s efforts, no timetable for Assad’s removal was added in the final statement, and stuck to their line that only the Syrian people can decide the future of their president.
Within Iran, however, the different political factions have not reconciled their views on the fate of Assad. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has led much of the Iranian political and military involvement in Syria since the start of the civil war, insists that Assad should remain in power. Following the Vienna round of negotiations, for instance, the head of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari stated that, while Moscow does ‘not care if Assad stays in power as we do’, Tehran sees no better option than him. On the other hand, the foreign ministry seems to have a more flexible view on Assad’s fate. Deputy foreign minister and delegate to the Syrian talks, Amir-Abdollahian, for instance, recently conceded that ‘Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever’.
Soon after the comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue was reached, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said that the outcome of the negotiations would not alter support for the government of Syria. At the same time, Zarif stated on a number of occasions that, once the nuclear dossier was closed, the foreign ministry would be empowered to deal with regional issues – including the Syrian dossier. His recent tour of the region to discuss the four-point plan with officials in Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, together with the presence of his team – the same that negotiated a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 – at the diplomatic talks on Syria seems to confirm an increased role of the ministry on regional policy as a consequence of the nuclear agreement. Whether this means Iran might abandon its insistence on keeping Assad in power or not remains to be seen. As talks on Syria are due to resume, Iran’s continued involvement at the negotiating table is vital for the success of the diplomatic process on Syria. This will not only provide a much-needed understanding of the divisions within the Iranian leadership on who could be part of a new government in Syria, but it will also increase the chances of the more moderate foreign ministry being empowered on the regional dossier.
Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies