Time to call Tehran

Sune Engel Rasmussen writes: As opponents of a strike against Syria scramble to find alternative avenues for a peaceful solution, there is one murky diplomatic route, rarely mentioned, which now seems more necessary than ever to explore: talking to Iran.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad is neither unconditional nor everlasting. Despite having assisted the Assad regime from the beginning of the conflict with weapons and personnel, the war in Syria has not strengthened Iran, which likely wants to get out of the Syrian quagmire as soon as possible — if it can do so with some influence in Syria intact.

First of all, the war has created a regional image problem for the clerics in Tehran. Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has strived to be a beacon for the downtrodden people of the Muslim world and a standard-bearer against what it sees as oppression by America in the region. Assad’s carnage against fellow Muslims makes Iran look really bad on the Arab street, where Iran tried hard to make the Arab Spring look like a logical extension of its own revolution.

Iran’s support for Assad is also financially costly and strains an economy already suffering under sanctions, inflation, and widespread mismanagement. This is partly why Iran wouldn’t be able to afford a proportionate response to a U.S. attack on Syria. As Meir Javedanfar has argued, Iran wouldn’t want to risk the loss of hard-to-replace anti-aircraft systems and fighter aircrafts, or to expose its nuclear facilities to attacks from Israel.

Lastly, propping up Assad after his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people is causing rifts in the Iranian leadership. On Sunday, Iran’s éminence grise – and presidential ally – Hashemi Rafsanjani reportedly blamed the Syrian government for the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 in a Damascus suburb. The government since denied the remarks, but regardless, the episode exposed a very real dissent within the establishment. [Continue reading…]

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