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Astana and Iran’s Agenda

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•Iran, Russia and Turkey to establish a trilateral mechanism to enforce cease-fire.
•The agreement maintains Iran’s role in Syria as an agent of aggressive sectarian tension.
•While Iran and Russia met over conflict, they’ll diverge over political solutions.

By: Hanin Ghaddar*

During the Astana negotiations, Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov read out a statement saying that the delegations of Iran, Russia and Turkey decided to “establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the cease-fire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the cease-fire.” He added that the three countries will also continue joint efforts to fight ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Fath al-Sham group, formerly the Nusra Front.

The statement did not specify how the mechanism would work to monitor the cease-fire that began Dec. 30. It was just a statement to assure the role of these three countries in any future solution for Syria. As Iran is one of the main countries included, the statement did not refer to any military involvement of Iran and its Shiite militias in Syria.

The agreement is not likely to make a real difference on the ground for two reasons. One, there will be no independent forces on the ground to monitor the mechanism – whatever it was – in order to ensure the ceasefire. But more significantly, this statement – by ignoring Iran’s Shiite militias in Syria – suggests a very dangerous scenario: one that will maintain Iran’s role in Syria, not as a peacekeeper, but as an agent of aggressive sectarian tension.

Another shortcoming is that there are no clear details of how this “mechanism” is going to stop Iran from violating the ceasefire, as it has been doing since the ceasefire was signed earlier in January. Iran can still do whatever it needs to do and no one seems to be able to stop it, with or without a mechanism.

That is why the opposition refused to sign on this draft and instead presented an alternative one that highlights Iran’s negative military role, and that any mechanism should be able to cover Iran’s vilations as well. Moscow is supposed to get back to the opposition groups on their proposal, backed no doubt by Turkey.

What does Iran Want?

There are no doubts that Russia and Iran started to differ on a number of issues related to the future of Syria, and the political solution being discussed. Besides using Syria as a platform of power, Russia is in Syria for Russia’s interests only. In addition to a seat at the table with the US, Putin wants recognition from Western powers, sanctions lifted over his seizure in Crimea and incursion in Ukraine, and NATO to step away from Russian borders.

Iran is Russia’s ally, and they both support Assad and his regime; however, as they met over conflict, they’ll diverge over political solutions. While Russia is pushing for a political solution that guarantees its interests, Iran is more interested in a military solution that will strengthen its agenda by force.

Russia wants Syria as one country where Assad will have to share power with his opponents, while Iran prefers a divided Syria where its plan for the region can be manifested. Iran’s plan to divide Syria allows easier demographic changes within the “Useful Syria” that stretches from the Alawite coast all the way up to Homs, the Suburbs of Damascus to Qalamoun and the Lebanese border. This stretch is part of Iran’s regional plan to create a Shiite crescent from Iran’s border to Iraq all the way up to the South of Lebanon.

This corridor – in addition to acting as a geographical Shiite bridge from Iran to Lebanon – it also provides Tehran a platform of power that will give them a more strengthened position in the Middle East and certainly more leverage against its opponents.

Challenges to Iran’s Plan

This plan is not going to be easy to implement or maintain for two reasons: One, Russia does not see eye to eye with Iran on Syria, and two, this region will be surrounded by a majority of Sunni people and Sunni powers that are not going to allow it without some kind of resistance or diplomatic action, even with a ceasefire agreement.

Iran does not hold the main seat on the table anymore, although the Iranian regime hoped it will after signing the Iran deal with the US. Russia today does and Iran will have to compromise. Iran is wary about Trump’s policy in Syria and also regarding the Iran Deal. Not much has been said on that in Washington, but still with Obama gone and a Republican president in, Iran cannot be very confident.

Iran also knows that Russia is no friend. Russia is in Syria for Russia, and will let go of Iran if Putin decides that the Russian interests are better with the US, or even with Turkey.

Iran is starting to realize that they have to compromise or else be compromised. Maybe that is why Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif’s recent statement was softer towards Saudi Arabia, as an attempt to test the waters or maybe reach out. Of course with Iran, it all goes back to their plan for the region that they will never compromise. Whoever is going to touch the Shia crescent will be an enemy.

So far, Russia is allowing it, and we don’t know how Trump’s administration is going to deal with it yet, but we do know that this is not something that Iran will bargain.

Another challenge that Iran will face during or after Astana is that the US presence as an observer does not mean that the US is not going to consult with its regional allies before taking a stance or acting. This might not sound great for Iran as this kind of consulting will probably include Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other GCC countries. But again, that’s’ not for Iran to decide and that’s probably why they opposed the participation of the US representative.

On the long run, Iran’s and Russia’s interests will diverge more as time goes by, or as a political solution is on the negotiating table. Russia might have to push Iran further to the side of the table if cooperation with US and Turkey looked more beneficial.

The trick is of course to make this kind of cooperation beneficial for Russia without losing sight of the main issue at hand, that Assad still has to go, and that Iran cannot win and maintain their “Useful Syria.”

*Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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