Iran Holds Talks with Syrian Opposition

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Journal of Turkish Weekly – The speaker of Iran’s parliament has revealed that the Islamic regime has held talks with Syrian opposition groups, accusing unnamed countries of blocking its efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria.

In a rare interview, Ali Larijani told the Financial Times on Tuesday that Iranian diplomats had met members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as ultraconservative Salafis and liberals and encouraged them to accept “democratic reforms through peaceful behaviour, not violence”.

Mr Larijani did not identify names of opposition members nor the exact dates of the meetings, which he said took place in Iran and were continuing, but conceded that little progress had been made. Tehran had previously only acknowledged “contact” with the Syrian opposition but had given no details. Bashar al-Assad is Tehran’s main ally in the region and the Islamic republic insists that he should remain in power. The regime in Damascus is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam followed by most Iranians.

Syria’s mostly Sunni opposition groups accuse Tehran of intervening to support the regime in the revolt that is now in its 18th month. At least 25,000 Syrians are estimated to have died in the conflict.

Syrian Islamists admit they have had contact with people close to the Iranian government but say that Tehran has tried to convince them to give up their demands for the fall of the Assad regime, rather than discuss a political transition. Analysts and diplomats in Iran say the Syrian conflict is becoming a proxy war between Shia Iran and the Sunni Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are backing the opposition, and that a resolution of the conflict will require an understanding between all regional powers.

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, who has called for the removal of the Assad regime, has begun his own initiative for a regional solution to the Syrian conflict, hosting meetings between senior diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. However, this week Riyadh did not send any representative to a foreign ministerial meeting in Cairo.

Mr Larijani said it was still early to judge the Cairo initiative. It was, he said, “wrong for some countries to come together and say that person [Assad] should not be [in power]”. Instead, he argued, Syria’s opposition should be seeking political participation and urging reforms, rather than working for the demise of the regime. “These groups are Syrian people. They can have political participation in the [reform] process, give their thoughts and provide solutions,” he said. “But some countries are intervening and are not allowing this to happen. I mean they [opposition groups] are not really left [alone] to make own decisions,” he added.

Progress on finding a solution to the Syrian conflict was also slowed by the absence of a leader who can speak on behalf of the entire opposition, and by the the rebels’ multi-layered structure, said Mr Larijani.

Mr Larijani insisted Iran had no interest in pulling its regional and Western enemies into a protracted conflict in Syria and was not trying to divert attention from its own nuclear programme. Nor, he added, was Tehran seeking to use the Syrian crisis as a negotiating tool with the major powers over his country’s nuclear programme.

Instead, he blamed Western powers as well as “some” regional countries of sending weapons to opposition groups. Analysts say that Iran’s objective in Syria is to ensure that it has influence over any eventual transition, but for the moment it remains committed to Mr Assad. Mr Larijani gave no hint that Iran would be willing to countenance any transition in Damascus, insisting that Syrians should vote in elections held by the Assad government under “necessary [international] supervision”.