Syria’s main ally, Russia, has taken on a central role in the effort to get President Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons. But his key regional ally, Iran, has kept a lower profile. Experts say the Syria conflict is a challenge for Iran, but it may be able to turn the new diplomatic approach to its advantage.
The presidents of Syria’s two top allies met last week, and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, took the opportunity to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new role on Syria.
He expressed hope that Russian diplomacy will avert what he called “a new war,” an apparent reference to threatened U.S. airstrikes.
Iran may have good reason to welcome any easing of tensions on Syria, according to Iran watcher Mark Fitzpatrick at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“As much as Syria is a complicated problem for Western nations, it’s immensely more complicated for Iran," noted Fitzpatrick. " I think that in many ways, Syria is becoming like Vietnam for Iran, a mess that they’re stuck in and they can’t get out of.”
Exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri calls that “an exaggeration,” but said Iran has invested significant resources in Syria for what he said are ideological reasons.
“The problem is Iran is a split personality," he explained. "Iran as a revolution has an interest in Syria. Iran as a country doesn’t have any interest in Syria. Rouhani wants to make Iran a country again.”
Western leaders hope President Rouhani will take a more constructive approach in talks on Iran’s nuclear program, and the new head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency has said as much.
"I've come here with a message of my newly elected president to further enhance and expand our ongoing cooperation with the agency and with the aim to put an end to the so-called Iranian nuclear file," remarked Ali Akbar Salehi during a speech to the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency.
Fitzpatrick said President Rouhani may want to use a hoped-for Syria peace conference to improve relations with the West, and to enhance his role in Iran’s foreign policy.
“The best case for Iran is probably if Iran can be invited to Geneva Two, and that Rouhani’s hand can be strengthened because he can talk to the United States about issues that matter to Iran, not just the nuclear issue that matters to the United States,” he said.
But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would need to back the plan. And Amir Taheri does not expect that to happen.
“Mr. Khamenei, who is the supreme guy, is very much committed to preventing President Assad from falling," Taheri said. "But the real issue is who will reshape the Middle East, the United States and its allies or Iran and its allies? And for the time being, the side on which Iran fights has won.”
Taheri said that will make Ayatollah Khamenei less interested in compromise with the West, and may cancel out any effort by President Rouhani to use the Syria issue to push a more moderate agenda.