Syria: Iranian Policy Caught Between Russia and Turkey
27 March 2016
By Amir Taheri
With Russia and Turkey trying to seize the initiative on Syria, there are
signs that Iran, also a key player in the crisis, may be distancing itself
from Moscow and moving closer to Ankara.
The first sign of this came on Sunday when the Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani told a press conference in Tehran that his government would not
endorse a Russian proposal for turning Syria into a federal state.
''Iran defends Syria's unity and integrity and the control of all its territory
by the government,'' Rouhani said. Hours later, the spokesman for the Russian
Foreign Ministry in Moscow denied speculation regarding a rift with Tehran
over Syria. ''We shall continue coordinating with Iran over Syria within the
framework of the international action group on Syria,'' he said. To some
analysts, however, that denial was more of an implicit confirmation.
''The mention of the international action group is significant,'' says Hamid
Zomorrodi, a commentator on Iranian strategies. ''Tehran had thought of an
exclusive double act with Moscow and the effective exclusion of the US and its
Arab allies from shaping Syria's future. When Moscow says Iran would be heard
in the context of the international group, a different picture emerges,
especially when we know that the US also favours a federal structure for
In fact, US Vice-President Joseph Biden has gone even further by hinting at
the possibility of dividing Syria into three mini-states.
Iran opposes the federal structure and the carving-up formulae for two
The first is that, either formula could block Iran's easy access to Lebanon,
where Tehran has established itself as the de facto power through the local
branch of Hezbollah. Russia may end up controlling the coastal strip of Syria
through a mini-state dominated by the Alawite minority which, if assured of
solid Russian support would have no reason to look to Tehran for support.
Another chunk of Syria could emerge as a Kurdish state, a development that
could trigger secessionist sentiments among Iran's own Kurds, estimated to
number 4.5 million. The rest of Syria, composed of a Sunni Muslim majority,
would be hostile to Iran which has been arming and aiding the Assad clan for
Opposition to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state is the key factor
in what looks like a tentative rapprochement between Tehran and Ankara. After
a visit to Tehran, Turkish Premier Ahmet Davutoglu declared that he had
reached ''full agreement with Iran on opposing any division of Syria.'' ''Neither
Turkey nor Iran would allow a new version of Sykes-Picot to be imposed,'' he
said, referring to a treaty drafted in 1916 by Britain, France, Italy, and
Russia to divide the Ottoman possessions in the Levant.
''We witness the emergence of an interesting situation,'' says Nasser Zamani, an
Iranian analyst. ''Iran is with Russia for keeping President Bashar Al-Assad in
power for as long as possible. But Iran and Russia diverge when it comes to
the future shape of Syria. On that score Moscow is closer to Washington than
to Tehran. The situation with Turkey is different. Tehran and Ankara diverge
on the fate of Assad, with Iran wanting to keep him and Ankara wanting to get
rid of him as fast as possible. Tehran and Ankara are united in opposing the
division of Syria, each hoping that the future government in Damascus would be
beholden to them.''
To complicate matters further, Iran's ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei has just
launched his ''Looking East'' strategy with the aim of building a Tehran-Moscow
axis to reshape the Middle East by reducing, if not totally eliminating, the
influence of the United States and its allies. A split with Moscow on Syria,
currently the key issue in the region, would undermine that strategy before it
is fully installed.
The Rafsanjani faction, of which Rouhani is a member, still hopes for an
unofficial Tehran-Washington axis that would allow the Islamic Republic to act
as a regional ''superpower'' with America's blessing.
Some analysts believe that Tehran could end up finding itself caught in a
cobweb of contradictory aims and strategies leading to being side-lined by
other rival powers in the region.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.