The Iranian foreign ministry’s new maneuvers on Syria
Political observers are now asking Iran to start supporting their rhetoric with active diplomatic engagement
“There are no more red lines left for terrorists to cross. Sunnis, Shiites will both remain victims unless we stand united as one. #Medina,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on July 4 following the terrorist attack near the Prophet’s Mosque in Saudi Arabia.
The recent widespread acts of terrorism, including during Ramadan, show the new scope of extremism that militants have reached. Although Iranian interests were not attacked, Iran is certainly not immune to the indiscriminate violence of ISIS. The Iranian government recognizes this, as evidenced by the emphasis on action and unity in Zarif’s recent tweets on the subject. At least half of his tweets since June 28 contain anti-terrorism messages and call on the need for unity to counter terrorists.
Zarif’s tweets have long been a window into the Rowhani administration’s foreign policy priorities. So these recent posts should be seen as are more than just lip service after a tragedy. They show a real fear on the part of Iran of the growing reach of terrorism. Iran has long touted that its large military and proactive foreign policy—particularly its presence in Iraq and Syria—keeps Iranians safe, but given the rise of ISIS attacks in recent weeks, is this really enough?
Zarif's decision to appoint seasoned diplomat Hussein Sheikholeslam as assistant secretary in Syrian affairs in June may is a signal to the region that Iran is getting serious about combatting ISIS and decreasing the IRGC’s (Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps) obsession with wasting its resources by propping up Assad regime.
Political observers are now asking Iran to start supporting their rhetoric with active diplomatic engagement.Camelia Entekhabi-Fard
While sometimes described as a hardliner, Sheikholeslam, a former ambassador to Syria, has previously expressed a willingness to work with the international community on regional security issues and has spoken of the need to diminish the impact of regional rivalries. These are the types of approaches needed to bring a political resolution to the conflict in Syria and focus greater attention on combatting ISIS and Nusra Front if Iran is serious about this.
Diplomacy takes center stage?
Finding a resolution to the crisis is key to destroying both militant groups, instead of wasting pro-Assad Iranian capabilities by fighting the moderate opposition. The last deputy FM, long rumored to be a Quds Force officer, Hussain Amir Abdullahian, would not and could not have pursued the diplomatic outreach necessary to combat terrorism in the region and Zarif likely understood this.
But being “serious” about resolving the Syrian crisis should also mean that Zarif finally be authorized to conduct diplomatic engagements on Syria with the international community, including the regional countries.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura was in Tehran this week and on Sunday he met Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Jaberi Ansari ahead of intense Syria talks supposed to be resuming in late August.
If all goes well, Shaikholislam will be able to act as Zarif’s trusted envoy to push for regional cooperation on fighting terrorism. Of course, many Iran observers will note that it’s hard to believe that any significant reform in the foreign ministry has been brought on, but at the same time, this does show Iran’s willingness to shift its policies and focus on countering terrorism.
Zarif’s emphasis on unity suggests that the Iranian government is beginning to acknowledge that it must work with others to combat the spread of global terrorism. But given Iran’s unwavering backing of Assad, other states might be reluctant to collaborate with Tehran, particularly if it involves military cooperation.
Political observers are now asking Iran to start supporting their rhetoric with active diplomatic engagement.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard