Tehran puts focus on diplomacy with Syria
Iran has sought a bigger role for itself in the diplomatic wrangling around Syria, hosting an international conference in Tehran on Wednesday amid reports that it had extended a $4bn credit line to the cash-strapped regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Iran has a longstanding alliance with the Syrian regime which has allowed it to project power into the Levant, in part by facilitating weapons supplies to the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, which is closely linked to Tehran.
Until recently, the roles of both the Shia Hizbollah and mainly Shia Iran in helping Mr Assad to try to crush the rebellion against his rule have been shrouded in secrecy.
But in recent weeks, as the Syria crisis has taken on more of the dimensions of a regional sectarian conflict, Hizbollah has become more open in its support for the Assad regime and its commitment to fighting on its side on the ground in Syria.
Iran, meanwhile, has begun to bid for a seat at the table in Geneva, where the US and Russia have been pushing to host negotiations between the government and the opposition in June.
Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, on Wednesday told the Tehran meeting that Iran considered the Geneva conference “an important step to help resolve the crisis in Syria”.
Wednesday’s gathering was not intended to yield any significant policy announcements, but it represented a symbolic rallying of support for Iran’s status as a player in Syria’s increasingly tangled conflict.
The most senior participant was the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. Iraq’s Shia-led government has maintained a neutral stance in public on Syria but has been accused by the US of allowing overflights by aircraft supplying Iranian weapons to Mr Assad’s regime.
Iran itself has been accused of providing a spectrum of assistance to Mr Assad, ranging from the training of pro-government militias to financial support.
Earlier this week, Syrian central bank governor Adib Mayaleh was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that Iran had extended a $4bn credit line to Damascus to finance imports, including oil products.
At Wednesday’s conference, however, Mr Salehi offered some fodder for those who believe Iran might be prepared to negotiate over the fate of Mr Assad in 2014 when Syria is due to hold elections, if Tehran’s role as an active player is recognised.
The “Syrian people can meet their demands through democratic means,” Mr Salehi said.
He said that Iran’s own 6-point plan for resolving the Syria crisis, presented earlier this year, included stopping violence and establishing a senate to draft a new constitution.
“Iran wants to carry the regime of Bashar until the next election and may play that card [of removing Mr Assad] at that moment,” said a senior western diplomat in Tehran.
For Iran, the fate of Mr Assad himself may be less important than preventing Syria from being taken over by Sunni rebels backed by the Arab Gulf states and America.
For now the strategy appears to be supporting the regime as it consolidates a strategic zone stretching from its coastal heartlands down along the Lebanese border to the capital and the south. The battle for the central town of Qusair, in which Hizbollah fighters are taking part, is all about helping to secure control over that zone.
According to Aram Nerguizian a senior fellow at the the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank, given that neither side has shown the ability to prevail, even such a “rump” entity could have enough spoiler power to give its allies a seat at the diplomatic table.
“Whether its Geneva or further down the road there will be an internationally backed political process, and the Iranians want to be at the table,” said Aram Nerguizian a senior fellow at the the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Much like the initial Geneva talks last year, Geneva II will fail if you don’t have at least some representation of Iranian interests.”
Iran has insisted its assistance to Syria so far has been purely humanitarian. Mr Salehi said on Wednesday that Iran had dispatched food, medicine, ambulance and gasoline while reinforcing the electricity system of Syria.