Iran watchers took note on Oct. 22 that when Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the annual Valdai Club forum in the Black Sea resort Sochi, a top Iranian official was seated on the podium. It was not Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but was Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani. After Zarif’s pivotal role in the successful conclusion of the P5+1 agreement, it would have been logical for him to be representing the Iranian Republic at the prestigious Russian forum. But since Oct. 7, Zarif has been grounded by Supreme Leader Khamenei, barred from further communications with US Secretary of State John Kerry, in particular.
Larijani’s presence was the latest signal that hard-line factions were making their move in Tehran. Larijani is widely viewed in Washington as a centrist, who is one of the prime Iranian channels to the Russians for President Hassan Rouhani. When Putin needs to get a direct message to the Iranian Supreme Leader, he works through General Qasem Solemani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Secretary of State John Kerry has taken careful note of the shifting factional tide in Tehran. The country is heading into crucial Majlis elections in February 2016, and already, the Guardian Council has taken some steps aimed at improving the chances of a conservative victory. They decreed recently that current members of the Majlis are not automatically vetted to run in February. The 12 clerics who make up the Guardian Council have absolute control over who is certified to run. The February elections will also choose the 80 members of the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the next Supreme Leader, when Ali Khamenei either dies or steps down.
Kerry’s worry, going into the start of a new diplomatic effort to end the four-and-a-half year Syrian war, is that he is not certain of who would be designated to head an Iranian delegation to the talks, which began on Oct. 23 with a meeting in Vienna, Austria between the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the ministerial level. He also knows that Iran has been adamant that Bashar Assad must remain in power indefinitely. If Iran does not alter that position, no talks can proceed. Iranian military advisors in Syria have also presented an overly optimistic picture of the state of the war, since the Russian bombing campaign began Sept. 30. As the result, Assad has tended to dig in his heels further.
Kerry understands that Russia and Iran will be key to any successful Geneva-3 effort, and he worries that if the wrong Iranians are doing the negotiating, the process will collapse before it gets off the ground.
Washington is also concerned that the Iranians have already misread the situation in Iraq, as well as in Syria. For a long time Tehran was fully prepared to go along with a partitioning of Iraq, knowing that the Shia area in the south is the center of Iraq’s vast oil and gas deposits. They envisioned an oil deprived Sunni entity in the north of Iraq as another Yemen, with few resources to develop.
The split between Iranian and Iraqi Shia clerics is also intensifying, in the context of Iran’s recruiting of Iraqi volunteers to go fight in Syria against the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other rebel forces. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has criticized the deployment of Iraqi Shia to Syria, while the Islamic State continues to control significant parts of Iraq. And he has called on Prime Minister Abadi to crack down on corruption, including the estimated $20-35 million a month in Iraqi oil revenues that go directly to the Iranian Quds Force, on orders from the ruling Dawa Party.
The efforts to achieve a Geneva-3 breakthrough are far more complex than the P5+1 negotiation on Iran’s nuclear program. If any of the parties to the process maintain an inflexible hard line, the whole effort can fall apart. Kerry does not have the option of waiting until after the Majlis elections to proceed with bringing Iran into the talks. By that time, US presidential elections will be in full swing, and Kerry knows that whoever is elected President in November 2016 will take a much more hard line against Russia and Iran (and China). Kerry is convinced that the last best chance for achieving a diplomatic solution to the Syria tragedy is in the next 12 months.