Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Jordan on Tuesday for talks aimed at seeking a resolution to the civil war in Syria. On the same day, Iran's Fars News Agency reported that Qatar's foreign minister will visit Tehran next week to discuss the Syrian crisis. These visits come mere days after Israeli airstrikes targeted Iranian-built missiles in Syria.
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Turkey began military exercises on its border with Syria on Monday — exercises Tehran labeled as provocative. In neighboring Iraq, an office of the country's pro-Iranian ruling Shiite coalition was attacked in the northern Sunni stronghold of Mosul, the latest incident in a wave of Sunni unrest against the country's Shia-dominated government. Between the Israeli and Turkish moves regarding Syria and the resurgence of Sunni militia activity in Iraq, Iran is under increasing pressure.
After years of expansion, the regional influence of the Islamic republic is in sharp decline due to the weakening of the Syrian regime. For Iran, Syria constitutes a matter of national security, and with the Syrian regime so highly dependent upon the Iranians, the question is how Iran plans to manage what amounts to a historic crisis. It appears the country is pursuing a strategy that allows multiple fallback positions.
Tehran's first priority is to try ensuring President Bashar al Assad's continued control of Damascus and the major urban centers of the country. The Iranian intelligence assessment is that, short of assassinating al Assad, the rebels are not in a position to topple the regime. But given the insurgent bombing last July of the Syrian national security agency building in Damascus, an attack that killed three of al Assad's top associates, Iran cannot be too sure about the physical security of al Assad.
Al Assad's political survival in Damascus is extremely critical to Tehran. At present there is no sign that al Assad is about to lose control, at least not of the capital. But if the trend of the past two years holds, and the Alawite-dominated regime continues to lose control of large swathes of the country, the Iranians cannot assume the current stalemate will remain steady.
If the stalemate breaks and the al Assad regime suffers a complete collapse, the Iranians will seek to benefit from the various rebel groups that will likely compete for power. Iranian national security planners expect that the Salafist-jihadist groups with their radical agendas will hurt Iran less than they will hurt Turkey, Israel and the Arab states. Tehran believes it will lose influence in the region but remain secure on the home front. This assumes Iran faces no serious domestic challenges and is geopolitically buffered by Iraq, where its Shiite allies and the Kurds are already setting aside their differences to meet the threats of a spillover of Sunni Islamist militancy from the Levant.
The Turks, Arabs and Israelis all stand to be directly affected by events emanating from Syria once the al Assad regime is relegated to the status of a non-state actor. While Turkey and Israel do not face existential threats from the implosion of the Syrian state, the Arab states are extremely vulnerable, and many of them will not be able to deal with the fallout. The Iranians, in the long term, see themselves resurging to once again take advantage of an Arab world in chaos.
The Iranians likely reminded the Jordanians of this scenario during Salehi's visit. Jordan is obviously the weakest link in the chain that is being constructed around Syria to force the ouster of the al Assad regime, and Iran wants to exploit Amman's vulnerabilities to sow divisions among the states backing Syria's rebels.
Tehran is also reaching out to both Qatar and Turkey, hoping these countries don't share Saudi Arabia's anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite zeal and might be willing to make compromises regarding the Syrian conflict. Likewise, Iran is hoping that American and Israeli fears of Sunni radicalism will shape their behavior, especially with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussing ways to achieve a negotiated settlement in Syria during his trip to Moscow. From Tehran's point of view, while the situation Iran faces in Syria is bad, the Islamic republic is not without options.