The US invitation for Iran to take part in talks on Syria marks the first international recognition of the need to involve Iran in resolving the Middle East crisis. Russian military strikes in Syria and the success of the nuclear deal with Iran are the two likely elements, which have prompted the move.
Iran is an important player in the region and has invested heavily in Syria over the past five years, both financially and politically by backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran’s acceptance of the US overture is an indication of how it is emerging as a critical diplomatic player after years of marginalisation by the West.
Previous attempts at involving Iran had been thwarted. In January 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had extended an invitation, saying: “Iran needs to be part of the solution to Syrian crisis.”
This invitation was later withdrawn due to objections by the Syrian opposition, as well as Saudi Arabia and the US on grounds that Iran is a staunch Assad supporter. It is an indication of the changing dynamics of the Middle East that Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition, and the US have all had to acquiesce to the idea of cooperating with Iran despite the fact that it has now become far more openly supportive of the Syrian regime.
There is little doubt that the US and Iran would both have preferred to do this in another way but the military escalation of the crisis in the Middle East has made their joint participation essential. It is also an indication that the parties to the Iran nuclear agreement are now ready to give this new relationship a chance and allow more diplomatic cooperation with Iran.
Russian air strikes
Another key element is that Russian air strikes in Syria have brought things to a head and Iran has been increasingly active in land operations in support of Syrian troops.
During these operations, at least five key commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have so far been killed over the past few weeks.
Officially, Iran says its commanders were in Syria to offer military advice and training and denies having combat troops. Yet, a week before the Syrian government offensive in south Aleppo, hundreds of Iranian troops arrived in preparation for an assault and IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani was killed near Aleppo during those operations. These facts made it increasingly more difficult for Iran to deny military involvement.
Previous attempts at holding talks without Iran have failed and this time the US has asked Russia to involve Iran and a joint US-Russian invitation has reportedly gone to Iran.
Moreover, for the first time, the IRGC’s deputy chief commander, Hossein Salami hasthat Iran’s military commanders in Syria are active on four levels.
Whether in a military or advisory capacity, indications are that Iran, Syria, and Russia have coordinated their efforts to have the most impact.
On the diplomatic front, in recent weeks, several high-level meetings have taken place between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian officials, all in preparation of the Vienna II talks.
The Syrian leader made a surprise visit to Moscow, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Moreover, Assad and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have reportedly consulted regularly by phone over the past two weeks.
Russia has increasingly been pushing for Iran’s presence, saying it is necessary to expand the circle of external players to bring about a settlement to the crisis, and he listed Iran and Egypt as top candidates to join the talks.
Led by the Russian strategy in Syria, Iran is playing a similar game to the one Putin has been playing: militarily supporting Assad, while at the same time pushing for a diplomatic solution with the West.
Iranian officials have made similar points to those of Russia with regards to the future of the Syrian president. They feel that at this stage when the world is facing a serious crisis in the Middle East, they should support Syria’s “elected leader” until such time as terror groups, such as ISIL, are defeated.
At a later stage Iran, like Russia, sees the possibility of some form of a coalition government. Iran has officially been proposing a peaceful transition in Syria that would culminate in free, multi-party elections.
Little choice but to involve Iran
Now, by taking part in the talks, Iran can help strengthen the stance taken by Putin and Assad for his continued leadership in Syria until elections are held.
The increasing cooperation between Iran and Russia has produced tangible results both for Russia and for Iran. Russia’s presence among the P5+1 was effective in striking a nuclear deal with Iran. This cooperation is now proving fruitful in potentially resolving the Syrian crisis.
At a time when both Russia and Iran face crippling sanctions from the West, their cooperation over key crises in the Middle East is proving more effective than the approach of their rivals.
Although the game is not over yet, Russia and Iran appear to be ahead of the US and its coalition partners in Syria on both the military and the diplomatic front.
The motto of the Iranian “revolutionary” establishment has always been neither West nor East. Still, Iran seems to be playing a more nuanced game by offering peaceful solutions to the West while helping Russia achieve its regional dominance militarily. In this manner, Iran is bolstering its own position as a regional player.
Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.