Eyeing Syria talks, Iran may put Assad ties in play
BEIRUT: For weeks, American officials have lobbied to exclude Iran from the Geneva talks on the Syrian conflict in late January, pointing to Tehran's military and financial aid to the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
But last Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry did an about-face: Iran could take part in the conference on the sidelines, he said, a move that could bolster the importance of the talks.
Kerry's statement was dismissed by an Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman who said that Iran "will not accept any proposal that does not respect its dignity."
Still, the comments could present an opening for Iranian officials who have long wanted the international community to acknowledge their role as a key regional power and have indicated that there will be no resolution to the conflict in Syria without their participation.
Most importantly, they may now be willing to make some unprecedented compromises in negotiations to end the conflict, including removing Assad from power, diplomats and analysts say.
"I don't think it's a red line for them," said a diplomat who recently met with senior Iranian officials.
"They would be ready to see some alternative to Mr. Assad provided that alternative is credible and does not generate chaos," said the diplomat, who asked that he not be identified because of the sensitivity of his discussions.
Since the conflict broke out in 2011, Iran has firmly backed Assad with weapons, shipments of oil and military advisers. As the Syrian civil war took on an increasingly sectarian character, Shi'ite Iran has seen Assad as a bulwark against the spread of hostile Sunni Muslim militancy across the Arab world. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ism.
Nevertheless, there has been a price to pay for Iran in losing support in Arab countries where Sunnis are the majority, and in the rise of sectarian hostility in Syria's volatile neighbors like Lebanon and Iraq.
The new suggestions that Iran might consider loosening its support for Assad come after a year in which the Syrian leader markedly improved his position both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena, with firm Iranian help.
A year ago rebels were steadily advancing on Damascus and many Western countries were openly proclaiming that Assad's days were numbered. But since then Syrian government forces have won battlefield victories with the support of thousands of fighters from Iran's allies, Lebanon's Hezbollah Shi'ite militia.
If Iran is now open to a compromise on Syria, it is likely to find the West far more receptive than before. Western countries that once demanded Assad be removed as a pre-condition to any settlement are showing reservations about their support for his foes as al Qaeda-linked fighters have seized control of rebel-held areas.
In September, U.S. President Barack Obama called off missile strikes to punish Damascus for using chemical weapons, ending more than two years of speculation that the West might join the war against Assad as it did against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
Iran's own relationship with the West has also been transformed with the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate. Secret negotiations with the United States culminated in an historic deal in November to ease some sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear program.
However, even if they were to accept the removal of Assad it is unlikely that Iranian leaders would agree to a successor government hostile to Tehran or one that would threaten their logistical pipeline through Syria to Lebanon's Hezbollah.
"The person of Bashar Assad is expendable for Iran," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an email. "The question is whether Iran believes it can preserve its strategic interests in Syria and the Middle East if the Assad regime were to collapse."