Will Iran's Hassan Rouhani negotiate on Syria?

After establishing the Iran nuclear deal as his first-term legacy, the question now is, what new initiative will Iranian president Hassan Rouhani embark on in his second term?  Should there be any expectation from the international community in Rouhani's second term as this regime's president?  And if Rouhani has the will to bring about any change in, for example, Syria, a big if, will it be for the better good of the Syrian people and the region?  Or merely seeking Iran's interests?

Iran's policies in the region have been considered by many to be based on double standards.  How does Iran legitimize its interference in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, and across the region while millions have been killed, injured, and displaced as the entire region remains in turmoil?

Iran claims to seek peace, stability, and cooperation in the Middle East through negotiations with neighboring countries.  Yet the status quo has changed significantly for Rouhani's second term.  Donald Trump is now the U.S. president, bringing an end to Obama's appeasement policy and calling on all countries to isolate Iran.

Many of Iran's regional neighbors view the regime as an ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who has massacred tens of thousands of his own people.

Iran, however, continues its support for Assad, arguing that international law considers Assad the president of a legal government in Syria.  Does being a legal government legitimize such measures against its own constituents?

Tehran is validating its support for the Syrian regime based on a request placed by Assad and claiming that 60% of the country's lands are in the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda.  And the mullahs' regime refuses to accept the existence of a Syrian opposition that enjoys international legitimacy and support.

While the international community accepts the fact that ISIS and other terrorists must be destroyed in Syria, this does not provide the grounds for Assad, with Iran's support, to massacre innocent civilians.  Former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon accused Assad of committing war crimes and using starvation as a tool in this regard.

U.N. special rapporteurs and envoys have leveled concerning allegations against the Assad regime, and for Iran to continue its support for Assad is troubling, to say the least.  The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan da Mistura, has also cited Iran providing $6 billion a year to Assad, considered a conservative figure by many.

Iran accuses other countries of recruiting terrorists from across the globe to fight against Assad and places the blame of enormous civilian losses on them.  And yet one cannot neglect the fact that Iran is providing arms, ammunition and tens of thousands of militias to prop up the Assad regime and killing tens of thousands of civilians, as reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Iran accuses other countries of interfering in Syria and Bahrain, for example, and yet refuses to accept its role in the Levant as such meddling by an outside party.

Iran is proposing talks with the three other regional powers, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, aimed at:

  • preserving the unity of Syria,
  • establishing a power-sharing government, yet failing to determine the highly sensitive subject of the fate of Assad as president of Syria,
  • holding U.N.-supervised presidential elections.

The sensitive question is whether Hassan Rouhani will pressure Assad to accept such terms.

It is crucial to understand why Tehran's regime is deeply interested in Syria.  The Levant, under the rule of Assad, provides a land bridge to the Lebanese Hezb'allah, and thus the Mediterranean, for Iran, allowing this regime to spread its influence from its soil all across the region.  In the case that Iran loses its foothold in Syria, considering that it is its 35th province, it will be the beginning of the end of Tehran's regional hegemony.

Such an outcome would reflect all of Iran's dilemmas inward and provide the grounds for social unrest to overcome the mullahs' regime.  As a result, the very nature of Iran's ruling apparatus prevents the rendering of any meaningful change in its regional policy.

"Take into notice any change in behavior is no different from the change in the entire establishment," said Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei recently. 

Heshmat Alavi is a political and rights activist.  His writing focuses on Iran, ranging from human rights violations, social crackdown, and the regime's support for terrorism and meddling in foreign countries to the controversial nuclear program.  He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi & blogs at IranCommentary.