Will Iran’s Rouhani Use Syria to Bargain?

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 during his second term? Should the international community have any expectations of Rouhani? 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 will he be merely looking to promote Tehran’s interests at the expense of others.

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

Iran claims to seek peace, stability and cooperation in the region through negotiations with neighboring countries. Yet the status quo has changed significantly for Rouhani’s second term. US President Donald Trump has ended Barack Obama’s appeasement policy and is pioneering an effort to isolate Iran over its belligerence.

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

Iran, however, continues its support for Assad, arguing international law considers Assad the president of a legal government in Syria. Disturbingly, according to the New Yorker, “Iranian-backed militias appear to have secured a road link from the Iranian border all the way to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The new land route will allow the Iranian regime to resupply its allies in Syria by land instead of air, which is both easier and cheaper.”

Tehran is validating its support for the Syrian regime based on a request placed by Assad and claiming 60% of the country’s lands are in the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. And the mullahs’ regime refuses to acknowledge 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 eradicated in all places, this does not provide grounds for Assad, with Iran’s support, to slaughter 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.

UN special rapporteurs and envoys have leveled deeply concerning accusations against the Assad regime, and for Iran to continue its support for Assad is very troubling to say the least. The UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan da Mistura 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 for enormous civilian losses on them. And yet one cannot ignore the fact that Iran is funneling arms, ammunition and militia members to prop up the Assad regime and killing tens of thousands of civilians, as reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The Assad regime recently requested that Iran take on full supervision and payroll duties of thousands of foreigners fighting alongside Russian and Syrian troops, according to a government source and a news report.

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 to hold talks aimed at:

—          preserving the unity of Syria.

—          establishing a power sharing government, yet falling short of determining the highly sensitive subject of the future of Assad in Syria.

—         holding UN-supervised president elections.

The complex question is will Rouhani pressure Assad to accept such terms. The answer lies in understanding why the Tehran regime is deeply interested in Syria. The Levant, under the rule of Assad, provides a land bridge to the Lebanese Hezbollah and thus the Mediterranean Sea for Iran, allowing this regime to spread its influence from its soil all across the region. If Iran loses its foothold in Syria, considered to be its 35th province, it will be the beginning of the end of Tehran’s regional hegemony.

Such an outcome would direct all of Iran’s dilemmas inwards and provide grounds for social unrest, which could shake the very pillars of the mullahs’ regime. As a result, the fundamental nature of Iran’s ruling apparatus prevents the implementation of any meaningful shifts in its regional policy.

“Take into notice, any change in behavior is no different from change in the entire establishment,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said recently.

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