Iran is reportedly weighing its options in Syria should the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad succumb to the nationwide popular insurgency now approaching its sixth month.
The French newspaper Le Figaro reported this week that representatives of the Islamic Republic recently met with Syrian opposition figures in a European capital. The Iranians were reportedly trying to assess whether opposition figures are amenable to the current government staying in power should it institute longdemanded reforms, or whether Assad’s ouster would be the only acceptable outcome.
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Iran also hoped to gauge the relative strength of Islamist factions within the Syrian opposition, and the position a post-Assad government would have toward Tehran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah sent out feelers to the Syrian opposition to help ascertain whether it might work with the radical Shi’ite group, the paper reported.
Syrian opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Abdullah told the Al-Arabiya network this week that the Iranians have already begun initial efforts at mediating between Syrian authorities and the country’s opposition. Abdullah said he believes Iran is already preparing for Assad’s removal, or at least a scenario in which Assad remains in power but in a severely weakened position.
After months of tacitly supporting Damascus’s crackdown, Iran’s rhetoric on Syria softened in recent weeks, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referring recently to the “legitimate demands” of protesters and calling on Assad to respect “people’s right to elect [leaders] and to achieve freedom.”
“Iran welcomed the Arab awakening until it arrived in Syria,” Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington said on Tuesday. “The violence and brutality in Syria has escalated to such a level that Iran has become forced to acknowledge it publicly.”
Tehran has categorically denied widespread reports that it is training and arming Assad’s security forces, and that it is encouraging its Syrian allies to show no mercy in putting down the uprising.
“If the Assad regime were to be succeeded by a regime in Damascus that was no longer interested in continuing Syria’s patronage of Hezbollah, or was not interested in maintaining the Syrian-Iran alliance, it would be very difficult logistically for Iran to continue its patronage of Hezbollah,” Sadjadpour told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Damascus has really been Iran’s only regional ally since the 1979 revolution [in Iran]. If the Assad regime fell, it would be a tremendous blow to the Iranian regime. And, in particular, the crown jewel of the Iranian revolution is Hezbollah in Lebanon.”