For the first time in many years, Iranian leaders are declaring that they are ready to make a deal with the United States on the nuclear issue, leading some skeptics to question whether Tehran is serious this time or merely orchestrating a publicity blitz for newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani. Although it is never wise to take Iran’s gestures at face value, several developments suggest a potentially unprecedented opportunity for diplomacy with Iran. Conciliatory statements from Iran’s top leadership, including the Supreme Leader, combined with the nuclear portfolio’s transfer from the defense establishment to the foreign ministry could signal a strategic shift in Iran.
This time there is one more important reason to take Iran’s leaders seriously and include them in any negotiations aimed at seeking a political settlement to the Syrian conflict: Tehran appears willing to dispense eventually of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for some relief on the crippling U.S., EU, and U.N. sanctions. Tehran is signaling a willingness to jettison Assad — who it now increasingly sees as a liability. By using Assad as a bargaining chip, the Iranians believe they will be under less pressure to make tortuous concessions on the nuclear program, such as capping enrichment at low percentages, because they would appear to have surrendered another one of their powerful weapons instead — the Syrian leader.
The political leadership in Tehran understands Assad’s resilience and his determination to cling to power at all costs. This has left the United States and its allies with a diplomatic settlement as the best option to end the Syrian war. Such a settlement would likely retain remnants of the Alawite regime without Assad or his clan at the helm. For Tehran, this scenario would still allow Iran to maintain its strategic interests in the Arab world and its supply routes to Hezbollah in Lebanon. For Washington, Iran’s disavowal of Assad would deal a severe blow to the Syrian regime, leaving it little choice but to negotiate a transition.
Iran also has other motivations to give up Assad. The overwhelming evidence that Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians makes it nearly impossible morally and ethically for Tehran to continue to support him, especially now that Iran is trying to convince the world that it wants to leave its dirty deeds behind and start anew with Rouhani. Moreover, a cash-strapped Iran has already poured billions of dollars into Syria and may seek to limit its liabilities in Syria’s deepening quagmire. Indeed, in order to restore its credibility at home and abroad, Iran’s leadership would gain to distance itself from Assad.
Finally, a diplomatic deal on Syria would ensure against radical Sunni Islamists rising to power for the foreseeable future. Not only is this in Iran’s interest, it is an outcome the Americans, Russians, and Europeans favor. This unusual convergence of interests, shared by Russia, could be the foundation for quiet cooperation on the Syrian endgame.
Iran’s strategy has been clear over the last few weeks. While some Iranian leaders are signaling their willingness for movement on the nuclear issue, others are indicating a shift on Tehran’s Syria policy. In the days leading up to Rouhani’s much anticipated United Nations speech on September 24, it is no coincidence that as he touted Iran’s eagerness to strike a deal on the nuclear program in the U.S-based media, his cohorts in Tehran were talking about life without Assad.
In an interview with NBC Rouhani asserted he has "full authority to reach a deal with the West regarding the nuclear issue" and that "Iran will not build a nuclear weapon." At the same time, the script on Syria seemed unanimous: Kazem Jalili, a deputy in the Iranian parliament who is a member of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, said on September 18: "Iran has always believed that Assad’s regime need not stay forever. Assad’s government has flaws and makes mistakes. The Syrian people can chose to change their government. They can express their will in next year’s election. Assad’s government has issues that it needs to resolve."
According to Iranian sources, Tehran is prepared to agree that Assad should leave office in 2014, when he has declared a presidential election will be held. This sequence of events is likely to appeal to Russia and the United States.
While the apparent shift in Iran’s posture must be tested, Washington could be looking at an historic opportunity to resolve two critical foreign policy challenges via diplomacy. Now, it appears Iran and the United States have overlapping interests that could pave the way toward successful negotiations on Syria and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Both issues reflect a deeper need to address broader regional security concerns in a region that is roiled by sectarian conflict and widespread upheaval. Discussions on Syria — a deep point of contention between the United States and Iran — could in fact become the catalyst for broader talks on the nuclear portfolio.
This is all the more reason for President Barack Obama to extend a grand and unambiguous gesture to Iran to signal that the United States is ready to end decades of hostility. Obama should take this opportunity to begin talking to Iran and include Tehran in negotiations on Syria — a long-standing demand by Tehran. Not only is this moment an opportunity for the beginning of bilateral talks with Iran, it could be a chance to end two of the Middle East’s greatest threats to U.S. security — the war in Syria and Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mona Yacoubian is a senior advisor, Middle East and project director of Pathways to Progress at the Stimson Center.