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Decoding the Iranian strategy on Syria peace talks

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

Emerging out of international sanctions, Iran is delighted to observe itself playing a crucial role on the world stage. The US Secretary of the State, John Kerry and Russia have invited the Islamic Republic to a broad new round of peace talks in Vienna in order to find a resolution for the Syrian civil war.

Will Iran accept one of the key conditions of the Geneva Communiqué for Syria; “Establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers that could include members of the government and opposition, and should be formed on the basis of mutual consent”?

IRGC strategy

From a geopolitical, ideological and strategic point of view, it is naïve to believe that Iran will diminish its hard line position on Syria. Not only are there no indications showing that the Islamic Republic will be changing its position, even slightly toward its chief ally, Assad, but Iranian leaders will be exploiting the peace talks in several ways, in order to advance their own interests.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Quds forces have not cut down on their military, advisory, intelligence and financial assistance to Assad’s government. New evidence reveals that Iran’s domestically-fabricated drones, Shahed 129, are increasingly hitting the Syrian rebel targets in spite of Iran claims that it is adhering to the ceasefire. The ceasefire was used military cover to gain ground in Syria and weaken the oppositional groups’ position in the peace talks.

In order to come from a position of strength via other regional powers in the peace talks, this week, the Iranian state-owned television outlets announced that The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran launched a nation wide ballistic missile test. Iran’s action again defies the United Nations Security Council Resolution and is aimed at reasserting Iran’s regional power, and it’s chief ally Assad, ahead of the peace talks.

Iran, the arsonist

Iran can be characterized as an arsonist in the Syrian civil war, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and the worst humanitarian crisis after World War II.

Iran is playing a destructive role on three different layers in the Syrian civil war. In the first layer, the domestic one where hundreds of rebels groups are fighting with Assad, Iran has intervened militarily, added fuel to the sectarian conflict, sided with some groups against others, and financial attempted to tip the balance of power against the oppositional groups.

In the second layer, the regional one, Iran has shown that it is determined to provoke and stand against any country which has asked Assad to step aside. For that reason, Iran is also recruiting Shiite fighters across the region to create a formidable Shiite-axis. In the third layer, the international one, Iran has successfully coordinated militarily with Russia, and has push Russia for airstrikes in order to provide cover and assistance, to win some key strategic battles in Syria. One cannot ignore the fact that Iran’s destabilizing role in Syria is deep, nuanced and complicated.

New evidence reveals that Iran’s domestically-fabricated drones, Shahed 129, are increasingly hitting the Syrian rebel targets in spite of Iran claims that it is adhering to the ceasefire.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Iran’s position has been clear in the last five years: under any circumstance, the Islamic Republic will not allow the Alawite state to be dismantled. It is simply inimical to Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, strategic, geopolitical and ideological interests.

From the perspective of Iranian leaders, any change in Syrian political leadership will reverberate across the region damaging Iran’s national security. For Iranian leadership, even a transitional government will be detrimental to their interests, because the rebels and the religious majority (the Sunni) will be playing larger role in the government, tipping the balance of power against the Shiite and their friends, the Alawites.

In addition, Iran cannot afford losing Syria, which serves as a conduit to deliver arms to Tehran’s Shiite proxies, including Hezbollah, or to train and give birth to other Shiite militia groups in the region. Moreover, Iranian leaders define all rebels groups as terrorists. As a result, with any kind of ceasefire or peace resolutions, IRGC and Quds forces will continue to “justify” their bombardments and strikes by making the argument that they are targeting terrorists.

Iranian leaders definitely want to see a halt to the Syrian war, but on their own terms, similar to the nuclear deal. Iran’s condition is unyielding: the Alawite state stays in power.

Finally, the Islamic Republic is using the peace talks to show publicly its enhanced global legitimacy, to reassert its indispensable role on the regional and global stage, after years of isolation, and to exploit the talks got the purpose of obtaining military cover to gain ground in Syria. The arsonist, the Islamic Republic, will fight to the end to maintain the Alawite state in power.
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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu, @Dr_Rafizadeh.

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