Iranian Influence Grows as Islamic Republic Joins Syrian Talks

  • Presence may lead to confrontation with rival Saudi Arabia
  • Iran has increased military aid to Syrian President Assad

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference.

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif plans to join international talks on Syria’s future in Vienna on Friday, in a sign of the Islamic Republic’s growing regional influence after the nuclear accord with global powers.

Zarif and three of his deputies will attend the meeting at the invitation of the U.S., Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, according to state-run media. The Vienna talks come as Iran bolsters military aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight with rebel groups, some of which are supported by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s leading regional rival.

“The world is giving Iran a more prominent role and a more important say in what goes on in the Middle East,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risks in the Middle East. The invitation is “a recognition of Iran’s role in what’s going on in Syria,” he said.

Proxy War

Iran wasn’t included in negotiations held by Russia, the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Vienna last week. Its presence on Friday may set the stage for a confrontation with Saudi Arabia, which has argued that the nuclear accord will embolden the Islamic Republic’s ambitions in the region.

The kingdom and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are engaged in a proxy confrontation with Iran from Yemen to Lebanon. In Syria, the Saudi objective of removing Assad has suffered a setback in recent months as Russia joined the war on the Syrian president’s side.

On Wednesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said his country would “intensify” its support for “the moderate opposition.” The Syria talks, he said, “might be a chance to reach or open the space to reach a logical solution to the crisis in Syria.”

The Iranians’ presence at the negotaitions would be an opportunity to test their intentions, the Saudi diplomat said. “If they are serious we will know, and if they are not serious, then we can stop wasting our time with them,” he said.

Mustafa Alani, the Dubai-based director of National Security and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center, said “the reading from the GCC side is we are rewarding the interventionist, we are rewarding the one who imposes itself to underpin a dictatorship. It’s quite likely the GCC will think twice before going with the Iranians to the table.”

Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian and Iranian forces have renewed their ground offensive in recent weeks, especially around the key cities of Aleppo and Hama. That’s coincided with more reports of Iranian casualties, some of them high-ranking officials in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Military Aid

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy head of the Guards, said this week that his country has extended its military support to Syria to include training, recruitment assistance and help to revamp its army at Assad’s request.

“The army has been involved for four years in a draining war, it needs a structural change,” he said.

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