The invitation extended to Iran to attend the multi-party talks on Syria in the weekend signifies a profound shift in the stance of the United States and Saudi Arabia. For the US, this shift comes naturally as a logical sequence to the recently concluded nuclear agreement, but for Saudi Arabia it is a bitter pill to swallow that Iran is being recognized as a stakeholder in the future of a major Arab country, something that it has been loathe to concede.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

The Saudis all along had feared that the nuclear deal would end Iran’s international isolation and unshackle it, enabling it to expand its activities and boost its influence in the region. Therefore, the fact that Riyadh has given way to US (and, possibly, Russian) entreaties to bring Iran into the talks shows Saudi weakness to some extent. On the other hand, it could also be that in the Saudi calculation, there could be useful fallouts for the resolution of the crisis in Yemen in which it is deeply entangled.

On the other hand, it is sound realism on the part of the US that Iran is invited to the negotiating table, given its presence on the ground in Syria and its great camaraderie with the Syrian leadership, aside its sheer capacity to make or mar any eventual settlement. The US, undoubtedly, has been eager to engage with Iran over the Middle Eastern issues, and working together on Syria would create mutual confidence to extend the cooperation to other issues as well in future, such as Yemen.

Iran is keeping its cards close to its chest on the Syrian question and surprises do lie ahead. To be sure, Iran works closely with Russia in the current phase of the Syrian conflict but at the same time it cannot be oblivious to the opportunity that lies ahead to project itself as a responsible member of the international community and as a factor of regional security and stability in a conflict that impacts the vital interests of the West.

Again, with the commencement of US-Iranian constructive engagement on regional issues, a fascinating US-Russia duel is likely ensuing to win the heart and mind of the Iranians. Make no mistake, Washington will not miss the opportunity to capitalize on the difficult history of the Russian-Iranian relationship, notwithstanding their current bonhomie and closeness. Russia has its pockets of influence within the Iranian regime, but then, the western-oriented Iranian elites have surged under the current political dispensation headed by President Hassan Rouhani.

Indeed, the dialectics involving the forces within the Iranian power structure that favor closer alignment with West and those who view such a prospect with distaste is also to be taken into account. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressly forbidden any further negotiations between Iran and the US and some wriggle room has to be found (which is well within Iranian ingenuity, of course).

One other factor is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] is leading the Iranian contingent in the Syrian war. It has suffered huge losses and made great sacrifice and it will no doubt expect to have a weighty say in the outcome of the war. The point is, an IRGC ‘victory’ in Syria will enhance its stature and it could cast shadows on Iran’s internal politics. A halo has appeared in the public perceptions around General Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the elite IRGC formation, as his recent biography highlights.

However, it is not necessarily the case that the IRGC is an inveterate enemy of the US. In Iraq, apparently, the US and Iran are working together and possibly even coordinating in some ways.

Iran has been a staunch ally of President Bashar Al-Assad. Having said that, Iran also has a strategic view of the Syrian crisis and has its own interests. The big question is how far Iran will be agreeable to a transition in Syria without Assad at some point. The standard Iranian refrain is that it is for the Syrian people to decide their future government. There is strategic ambiguity in the Iranian stance on this score, which could be intentional.

But on more than one occasion recently, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who is a key point person, has come closest to affirming the centrality of Assad in any Syrian settlement. Last month, while on a visit to Beirut, he said, “Political solution is the only way to put an end to the Syrian crisis and Bashar Assad is part of that solution.”

Again, he spoke in a similar vein the next day while on a visit to Damascus, and this time he was most emphatic:”Any successful plan to find a solution to the Syrian crisis must take into consideration the central role of the Syrian people in deciding their future and fate, and the role of the government and of Assad are essential and pivotal in the potential solution.”

A fortnight later while on a visit to Moscow for consultations relating to Syria, he said, “Iran and Russia are the serious and main partners in a peaceful settlement of the crisis in Syria, and emphasize that Bashar al-Assad, the legitimate president of this country, should be part of the negotiations about Syria’s political future.”

In the regional context, Iran’s inclusion in the Syrian peace process becomes yet another political and diplomatic setback for Israel (on top of its dismal failure to kill the Iran nuclear deal). Israel is now the only major country in the Middle East that stands outside the tent looking in – although it has big stakes in the Syrian settlement. The time has come for Israel to seriously introspect how it is missing the plot all over again.

Indeed, it comes as a double blow for Israel that earlier today Russia also conducted is first air attacks on targets in southern Syria near the Golan Heights. Notably, this is an unambiguous signal to Israel to stay off the Syrian skies. Israel has been insinuating so far – without Moscow contesting – that it has an understanding with Russia in regard of its operations in Syria’s southern skies. That apparently is not the case, as today’s Russian air attacks near Golan Heights signal.

Russia now effectively operates a ‘no-fly zone’ over Syria, which strips Israel of access points to not only targets in Syria but also in Lebanon. Meanwhile, according to reports, Russia is dispatching to the Eastern Mediterranean a massive guided missile carrier, Moskva, equipped with an estimated sixty-four S-300 missile defence systems.

All in all, the alignments in the regional politics have dramatically changed with the latest reversal in the US position signifying its willingness to sit with Iran to discuss Syria.

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