With Iran being among the major stakeholders in Syria, debates continue over the country's potential role in the settlement of the Syrian crisis.
U.S.-Iran rapprochement opens new political opportunities for the Islamic Republic. Source: AP
On Monday, Oct. 7, the spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department suggested that the United States might accept Iran's participation in the long-awaited Geneva-II conference that is expected to establish Syria's transitional government.
The U.N.-backed Geneva conference is an attempt by the United States and Russia to bring stakeholders to the table in order to reach a consensus on how to settle the civil war in Syria. The participants are looking to implement the Geneva Communiqué that was issued at the Geneva-I conference in June 2012. The communiqué establishes a framework for diplomatic resolution of the crisis and seeks to create a transitional government formed on the basis of mutual consent of the government and the opposition in Syria.
Iran, however, was not invited to take part in the first Geneva conference; hence, it's not a signatory to the communiqué. But with the thaw in U.S.-Iran relations the latter has a chance of making it to Geneva this time if it signs the final Geneva statement.
At the bargaining table, Iran is likely to come as a strong pro-Damascus party and to back Russia's attempts to keep Bashar Al-Assad in power. But while the White House has welcomed Iran's participation, Syria's opposition came up with the condition that Iran must not be present in Geneva as a mediator. This demand is supported by the Persian Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose goal is to cap Iran's diplomatic initiatives.
Syria remains a crucial element of Iran's foreign policy, ensuring the country's access to the entire Middle East region. It remains to be seen if Iran is ready to make significant concessions to be allowed to partake in the Syrian peace process. In anticipation of the November conference, Russia Direct talked to a number of experts on the politics of the Middle East to discuss the prospects of Iran's participation in the Geneva-II conference.
Alexander Shumilin, Director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts, the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences
As spirits run high in the Obama Administration, Iran's participation in the Geneva-II conference shouldn't be ruled out. But it is only possible if the conference gets wider participation among its regional Sunni rivals: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.
The Americans are currently eager to welcome Iran in Geneva to see if the first attempt of discussing the region's problems with Iran succeeds. Russia, on the other hand, is interested in Iran's participation as it strengthens Russia's position at Geneva-II. But the revived contacts between Washington and Tehran threaten Russia as the two may decide to hold a dialogue that avoids Russia's participation.
It is not clear yet, however, who could represent the Syrian opposition as well as the al-Assad government. However, if the United States enters the conference with no pre-conditions for Iran, the opposition risks being weakly represented in Geneva.
Iran's goal is not so much to have al-Assad in power, but rather, a wider group of the Alawite political elite that is loyal to the Shiites. Failure of the al-Assad regime will significantly weaken the regional "Shiite axis" (Iran - Hezbollah - Syria). This means that as a result of the talks, Iran may agree to pre-term elections and Assad's deposition if his supporters remain in power. The Islamic Republic may potentially agree to the establishment of transitional government if al-Assad agrees to step down voluntarily. But at the end of the day, I think that the conference will not take place any time soon.
Vladimir Yevseyev, Director of the Public Policy Research Center
There is mutual understanding between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, which resulted in a bilateral meeting at the UN in late September and later, in a phone conversation between the presidents. Back then President Obama said that Iran has the potential to help stabilize Syria. All of this means that nothing stops Iran from participating in the settlement of the Syrian civil war.
Another important thing to consider is that another round of P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear program is taking place in Geneva on Oct. 15. If Iran doesn't prove to the international community that it's ready to make significant steps to improve its relations with the West, its participation in the Geneva conference will be undermined.
The Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf are particularly against Iran's participation in the Geneva conference at the moment. Inside Iran, a number of Revolutionary Guards members are against Iran taking part in Geneva-II. They believe that Iran's cooperation with the West will be a blow to the Islamic Republic's national interests.
Iran doesn't have immediate economic interests in Syria, but at the same time, having invested $14 billion in the country during the civil war, Iran would like to get something back. The Islamic republic would like to see Syria as a partner in the future as it provides access to the entire Middle East. It could also create a military base in Syria as part of a new stronghold in the region.
Syria is key for Iran's fight against Israel. But at the moment President Rouhani tries not to comment on the issue, and pretends that Syria isn't interesting for him. At the same time Syria is a bridge to Hezbollah and Hamas, whom Iran provides with arms.
Even if Iran makes it to Geneva, any progress is unlikely. Geneva-II will become an intermediate stage in the peace process. The most it could do is show that there is an intention to solve the crisis. Another Geneva conference could take place in 2014.
Foreign sponsors, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, play an important role in the resolution of the conflict. If Iran and Saudi Arabia manage to broker a mutually beneficial deal on Syria, and if Saudi Arabia cuts its aid for the opposition, the conditions for negotiations could change dramatically. Turkey's open border, on the other hand, serves as an arms supply route and allows transporting wounded militants to Turkey.
A radical turn on the battlefield is needed to reach a compromise on Syria's civil war and to form a transitional government. The turn may happen in 2014, but it requires a compromise between the major foreign sponsors of the war -- Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Elizabeth Iskander, Research Fellow at the University of Warwick
Direct participation of Iran in the Geneva conference would be problematic because Syrian groups have already rejected any potential participation by Iran. But the Islamic Republic will have indirect influence at least through its links to Russia and also because its presence on the ground in Syria is a fact that will impact on negotiations.
Iran and the U.S. have used international negotiations as forums to talk unofficially before and this could provide a useful platform while the focus is on Syria to test the waters and see if there are real prospects for direct U.S.-Iran talks to make progress.
Iran has significant strategic interests in Syria. Syria has been a long-standing ally, part of the so-called axis of resistance with Iran and Hezbollah. Syria is Iran's only real ally in the Arab world and acts as its bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Iran's participation in Geneva-II, although not yet clear when, would significantly strengthen Assad's position but even without its presence, the conference would not reach an agreement that would see Assad being ousted.
Any agreement on transitional government is unlikely at this stage, since even the act of holding the conference is uncertain. If it takes place it would be a step in the right direction but a grand political solution should not be expected. The best that can be expected is some agreements on issues such as humanitarian aid and putting in place a plan for the next steps in the negotiation process.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations, Chair, Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS, University of London. Author of "On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today"
The recent thaw in U.S.-Iran relations certainly made the Islamic Republic's participation in Syria settlement more likely. If there is one regional country that should be at the table with the Syrian factions it is Iran, given its regional clout. The process has to be as inclusive as possible to ensure that the tragedy in Syria is dealt with effectively.
Iran has signaled that it will participate in the Geneva-II conference if there are no stringent pre-conditions. It is in Iran's interest to take part in the resolution of the civil war because it wants a stable and united Syria. The country is central to the so-called resistance axis that binds Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Syria and Iran together in opposition to Israeli power and hegemony. It is primarily a defensive axis.