Let Iran Own its Syria Policies

February 4, 2014

The first round of Geneva II talks did not go well. Not much was expected from this latest attempt at diplomacy, but it was hoped that an initial compromise on the issue of humanitarian aid could open the door for more substantial cooperation down the road. Profound mistrust on both sides and the seemingly unsolvable question of Assad’s future continued to plague discussions. The opposition and its backers (including the United States, the EU, and Saudi Arabia) insist Assad should go. Assad, with backing by Russia and Iran, has refused to do so.

Although Russia participated in these talks, Iran had to watch from a distance. This is a problem. Iran should be a part of international efforts to end the violence in Syria. Proponents for Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva process can point to a number of facts that make the case for Iran’s involvement plain.  Iran is more intimately involved in Syria’s civil war than any other outside power, providing funding, arms, training, and an unknown number of advisors and troops to assist the Baathist regime. Iran sees Syria as vital to its own strategic interests and is unlikely to support any deal that does not take that into account. Therefore, to ignore Iran’s role in Syria is shortsighted, unrealistic, and potentially harmful to peace efforts. But this isn’t why Iran should be involved. Rather, Iran should be involved precisely because it would force Iran to publicly own its part in Syria’s civil war and bear more responsibility for the humanitarian crisis it has caused.

Iran has long aspired to be recognized as a regional power, one that deserves respect and consideration in the international community. It has tried to achieve this position by making itself a player in a host of regional issues and conflicts. Through its ties to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Assad regime, Tehran has gained a place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similarly, Iran has established itself as a major force in post-Saddam Iraq, and has found numerous ways to exert its influence in Afghanistan. In all of these areas, Iran has been able to exploit its extraterritorial investments towards strategic ends. Nowhere is this more evident than in Iran’s dealings with the United States, to which its ability to threaten Israel (and at other times, its ability to harass U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan) by proxy has been a perennial backdrop.

But, as its exclusion from the Geneva II process has shown, Tehran’s strategy of supporting militant organizations outside its borders has not garnered it the respect it desires. Iran’s provocative actions have kept the regime isolated from much of the international community and disliked by many of its Arab neighbors. Its support for Shia militant groups in Iraq, and its stalwart backing of Assad, has (along with its neighbors’ support for Sunni Islamists) helped propel the region into a minefield of sectarianism and transmuted tensions with Saudi Arabia into a veritable cold war. Add to this the economic woes it has suffered at the hands of sanctions, and the totality of Iran’s efforts have cost it a great deal.

Increasingly broke and alienated, Iran found itself at a turning point last June. It could either double-down on its resistance strategy—which favors antagonism over compromise—or it could reengage with the world and try to solve some of its enduring economic and security dilemmas. With the election of Hassan Rouhani, and the unqualified support given to him by the Supreme Leader, Iran has ostensibly chosen the latter. Iran’s new approach has been evident in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, where for the first time since the Khatami period, Tehran has demonstrated a willingness to compromise with the West. Despite being barred from the Geneva talks, Iran’s smile diplomacy was on full display in Davos, where President Rouhani impressed attendees at the World Economic Forum by reiterating his commitment to reaching a nuclear deal with the West, and by expressing Iran’s desire to increase cooperation with its neighbors and to seek foreign investment.

With Iran’s new diplomatic persona on the rise, it must have been an embarrassment for Tehran to be kept out of Geneva II. However, uninviting Iran was actually a gift to the regime. Make no mistake: Iran would have been thrilled to attend the Syria talks. It would have taken it as a sign of respect, an acknowledgement of its role and influence in Syria, and as a testament to the success of its strategy in the Levant. So why should critics of Iran ever want it to have a place in such talks? Because giving Iran a place at the table is the only way to make it take responsibility for its role in Syria’s civil war. Presently, Iran benefits from being marginalized. It is able to back Syria in whatever ways it wants without having to bear any accountability in international fora for Assad’s crimes. Iran can maintain its policies even as Assad gasses his own people—something that should enrage not just the Iranian public, but all Iranian war veterans, especially the Revolutionary Guards, who suffered more than any other force from the chemical weapons used by Saddam during the war—and pay no real price for it. If Iran wants to be recognized as an important player in Syria’s conflict, the international community should let it. Let Tehran own its policies and stand behind them at the negotiating table. If nothing else, Iran will at least be further exposed as complicit in Assad’s horrific war.

Although it might sound unlikely, Iran could also play a constructive role in peace talks. Iran does not want to lose its strategic investments in Syria, but it also doesn’t want to remain a pariah in the international community. There’s a middle area there where compromise could take place. Iran lacks the motivation to change course in Syria, and sidelining it from the diplomatic process (particularly when allowing Saudi Arabia, its chief rival, to take part) only hardens its views. If Iran wants greater international standing, engagement, and investment, the international community should make the softening of its Syria policies a prerequisite. By letting Iran take part in talks, the international community would be giving Iran an opportunity to do just that. It would allow Iran a prominent platform to show leadership and pragmatism on an issue that it has an immense stake in. If Iran were to show the same intransigence as the Assad regime, the Rouhani experiment would be exposed as hollow, and Iran would have to bear greater responsibility for the conflict’s humanitarian devastation. On the other hand, if Iran were to rise to the occasion and help broker some sort of compromise, it would only be to the benefit of the Syrian people, who deserve much more international cooperation in trying to put an end to the violence, not less.

 

Afshon Ostovar is a senior analyst at CNA and the author of, On Shifting Sands, a report on the impact of sanctions and the Arab Spring on Iranian strategy. Ostovar is writing a book on politics, conflict, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  He is a contributor at War on the Rocks.

 

Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva