There is only one point that is clear in Iran's proposals for solving the Syrian crisis: Strongman Bashar al-Assad should not be toppled. Tehran also says it's onboard for "democratization" and fighting terror.
At the UN General Assembly in New York, Iran made clear that it wants to participate in international efforts to find a solution to ending the conflict in Syria, but does not wish to see Bashar al-Assad removed from power. With that, Iran stands alongside Russia in the middle of divergent international efforts to stop "Islamic State" (IS) and to find a solution for ending the civil war in Syria.
"We (Iran and Russia) are in agreement that the government in Damascus can't be weakened right now," said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his speech before the UN General Assembly. In his speech, Rouhani went on to say that Iran was prepared to help neighbors like Syria and Yemen in "the eradication of terrorism and in paving the way for democracy." Rouhani did not mention Assad by name in the speech. The day before, however, he emphasized that removing Assad from power would transform Syria into a "paradise for terrorists."
Rouhani was further quoted by Reuters news agency as saying, "One can talk about reforming the Syrian government, but that should not be the priority, the fight against terror is the top priority." In an interview on the US cable news network CNN, he said: "There is no solution other than the strengthening of the (Syrian) central government's authority."
Close coordination with Russia
Iran says that their traditional alliance with Syria and its Shia-Alawite leaders is not up for discussion. "Good relations with the Shiite Assad government show just how strong Iran's influence in the region really is. At the same time, Syria is an important logistical bridge when it comes to supporting the Shiite organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. With Iran's friend Assad in power, Teheran's own bargaining position is strengthened when dealing with regional and global powers," as Kamran Matin, lecturer for international relations at the University of Sussex, in England, explained during an interview with Deutsche Welle.
Iranian-Russian solidarity on the UN stage came as no surprise. In mid-September, General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, was in Moscow for the second time in just a few months. The elite Quds Force that he commands is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and conducts special operations outside of Iran. "Over the last few years, Iran and Russia have constantly coordinated their policies toward President Assad," says Mohsen Milani from the "Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies" at the University of South Florida in the USA. "According to media reports, General Soleimani has been responsible for Iranian operations in Syria for several years."
During the last two years, photos and reports have appeared in the Iranian media portraying Soleimani as one of the most important leaders of Shia militias in their fight against IS in Iraq and Syria. American media outlets consider him to be one of the most powerful men in the Middle East and a puppet master in the Syrian civil war. It is conspicuous that Moscow began to strengthen its military presence in Syria immediately following Soleimani's visit.
The scary specter of an IS victory in Syria
"Over the last few months, the Syrian army has suffered a lot of defeats," says Kamran Matin. Assad's army can barely put up resistance against IS. "Should the Syrian government fall, IS would be the only group that could actually take power. The sudden fall of the Syrian government would have horrific consequences for the region," warns the political scientist from Sussex.
Apparently, that is the same conclusion that has been reached in Washington as well. Just prior to the start of the UN General Assembly, US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was quoted by the news agency Associated Press (AP), as saying, "It would make sense to talk to Iranian government representatives in the current situation." After meeting his colleague Mohammed Sarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he saw the General Assembly as an "important opportunity for a number of countries to play important roles in solving some of the most difficult problems in the Middle East."
In early September, Sarif was already talking of a new peace plan that Iran and Russia wanted to push for Syria. The plan seeks to enable reconciliation in Syria through negotiations at a national level and through democratic elections as well.
Just how this plan is supposed to look is anybody's guess. "I don't know how Iran plans to end the bloody civil war raging in Syria. But Iran's most important goal remains the preservation of a pro-Iranian government in Syria - with or without Assad," says US political scientist Milani. Milani also believes that Iran may, in the end, be willing to discuss Assad's fate as part of a peace plan.