Syria: Can the United States and Iran Reach an Understanding?

Two days of very frank and worthwhile “track two” discussions between senior Iranian and US non-officials recently took place in Europe. Syria was, as it had been in the previous December round of talks, a major topic of discussion. Although there was no unanimity of views about Syria from either side of the table, a clearer picture emerged (in the opinion of this participant) of the conditions that would have to prevail for the United States and Iran to be in a position to consider cooperating on Syria.

Tehran’s fundamental reason for supporting the Assad regime was forcefully restated by the Iranian side: Lebanon’s Hezbollah is Iran’s “deterrent force” and first line of defense vis-a-vis Israel. Members of the Iranian team stressed that the “Assad regime”—not necessarily Bashar al-Assad personally—was essential (along with a supply corridor through Iraq to Syria) to maintain Hezbollah’s combat readiness. Although it may be assumed that Iran would wish to exercise considerable influence in Syria even in the absence of Israeli-Iranian tensions, the Iranians present at this discussion stressed the vital connection between regime preservation and the defense of Iran: alone among Syrian players, the Assad regime will do as Iran wishes with regard to supporting Hezbollah.

The distinction drawn by Iranian interlocutors between Bashar al-Assad and his regime was interesting, if not dispositive. The Iranian side acknowledged that, for many years, Bashar al-Assad and his regime had facilitated the passage through Syria to Iraq of jihadist elements responsible for multiple massacres of Iraqi Shia; elements that made a U-turn back into Syria and now threaten the inhabitants of both countries. The Iranian side went out of its way to emphasize that Tehran’s current relationship with Assad is based on neither affection nor respect. This is business. This is about a regime willing to subordinate itself to Iran on the issue of Hezbollah. Although members of the Iranian team drew the distinction between man and regime, it struck at least one American that it was a distinction without a difference: that even if Bashar and his family could be induced to leave, the murderous performance of the regime to date has rendered it ineligible for any sustained role in Syria’s transition. How, after all, could a party fully steeped in mass homicide play a role in the consensual stabilization of the country?

One member of the US team posited that Iran and the United States might be on a collision course in Syria: that the Obama administration may be considering doing things consistent with its long-held position that the calculation of the Assad regime would have to be changed in order for that regime to take seriously a negotiated political transition. Based on President Obama’s West Point speech it appeared that the administration, with the full cooperation of Gulf partners and others, was thinking seriously about a major arm-train-equip program for Syrian nationalist opposition forces.

The Iranian side reacted negatively to this possibility. One team member wondered what possible US interest would be served by such an initiative: Syria was, after all, thoroughly contained with no spillover effects on neighboring countries. The American side reacted with incredulity to this observation. Another member of the Iranian delegation warned that US escalation would be met with Iranian escalation: a view, as one American noted, fully consistent with the properties of a collision. Another noted that Tehran was counting on President Obama to avoid any involvement in Middle Eastern armed conflicts.

All of the Iranians expressed the view that Iran and the United States ought to be able to reach an accommodation on Syria, the bases of which would be the preservation of the Syrian state and opposition to the presence of Sunni Islamists extremists. The Iranians took the view that Saudi Arabia was fully supportive of the worst of the worst and would have to be brought into line by the United States. The American side pointed out that Washington and Riyadh seemed now to be on or near the same page with respect to Syria: that military aid was being funneled to Syrians willing to fight both regime and jihadists.

There was a division on the Iranian side on whether a nuclear agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 could lead to cooperation on Syria and other regional issues. Optimism by some on this score was balanced by the view of others that a nuclear agreement—far from a done deal in any event—may prove to be a tactical, one-off transaction standing entirely on its own. One of the Iranians took the position that the logical bridge to cooperation on Syria would be a United States-Iran understanding on Iraq. The Americans pointed to the potential utility of regional talks aimed at exploring Iraq-Syria tradeoffs. This provoked a mixed reaction on the Iranian side: interest by some, but objection from one who characterized talks involving Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia as a US abdication. Clearly, however, the preference of all on the Iranian side was for the Washington to bring Riyadh fully into consonance with Iranian regional objectives.

One recommendation from the US side was that Tehran and Washington go full speed ahead on the nuclear file and speak bilaterally, at the official level, about mitigating Syria’s humanitarian crisis. There was less interest manifested by the Iranian side in the suffering of Syrian civilians at this meeting than there was in the December session. One American noted that regime barrel bombings were “working” in terms of harming opposition morale, albeit in a bloody-minded, terroristic manner: an observation no doubt not lost on Iranians who see a regime victory as essential irrespective of the means or the human costs. One Iranian claimed that the majority of Syrians killed over the past three years are Alawites, and that people who extract and eat human hearts—presumably people supported by Saudi Arabia—are responsible for much of the carnage. It was not clear whether the assertion was believed by its propagator or was merely meant to deflect a factual discussion of war crimes and crimes against humanity based on the reporting of United Nations agencies and affiliates.

One conclusion seemed obvious from this Iranian-American dialogue: Tehran believes it has successfully stabilized, in western Syria, a Syrian client it deems important for Iranian national security purposes far transcending Syria. It would like the United States to accommodate itself to this situation, to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, and to focus on a nuclear agreement that would get the Islamic Republic out from under crippling economic sanctions. If Iran’s intentions toward Israel are fundamentally defensive in nature—to deter an Israeli attack with Hezbollah rockets and missiles—then it is safe to say that Tehran will have no interest in a political transition process shuffling the Assad regime off the scene until that threat vanishes. If its intentions toward the Jewish State are offensive in nature, then it would be equally safe to say that Iran would want the Assad regime to be a permanent fixture, at least in the west of Syria adjoining Lebanon.

Given both the certainties and the ambiguities associated with Iranian national security objectives, it seemed to at least one American participant that a prudent policy for Washington and its partners would proceed down two tracks: good faith negotiations aimed at minimizing Iran’s “break out” ability with regard to nuclear weaponization; and an arm-train-equip program for nationalist, anti-Assad-anti-jihadist forces robust enough to give pro-Syria Syrians a chance to prevail militarily over two sets of terrorists. Such a two track approach may ultimately encourage Tehran to see as dispensable a regime that has caused untold suffering not only in Syria, but among Iran’s coreligionists in Iraq. Yet, until Tehran sees the possibility of its client going down, its prevailing view may be that a reliable murderer in hand is worth far more than a respectable alternative in the bush.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons during what activists said was a call for leaders of other military groups to start liberating the city of Hama from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in northern Hama countryside June 9, 2014. Picture taken June 9, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Badi Khli)