Iran is finally ready to dump its leading ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. This falling-out eluded every effort of US diplomacy for decades. The rift burst out into the open Tuesday, October 25, when Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi's scheduled visits to Syria and Lebanon were abruptly cancelled without explanation.
The events leading up to the rupture are outlined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources:
Intensive deliberations at Iran's National Security Council and private consultations between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the council chairman Ali Akbar Velayati led Iran's ruler to the conclusion that Bashar Assad's rule of Syria is in imminent danger of collapse. Ergo, Tehran's relationship with Damascus must be reconstructed on new foundations.
Khamenei accordingly instructed foreign minister Salehi to travel to Beirut, Damascus and Riyadh for top-level discussions on the Syrian crisis, thereby performing the spadework for a new policy. The Supreme Leader banked on this single stroke of diplomacy achieving all his objectives: Iran's strategic alliance with Syria would be preserved while Assad would be cut off from his ties with the Lebanese Hizballah and hemmed in by a strengthened line-up of governments able to force him to resign. After that, a new Syrian president would step up and act to co-opt the Syrian opposition to his government.
Iran's new Syrian policy unveiled to Americans
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outlined Tehran's revamped attitude towards its favorite ally Saturday, Oct. 22, in an unusually long CNN interview. After receiving a surprise request from his office, the network conferred with the White House and then sent its senior correspondent Fareed Zakaria to the Iranian capital to hear what the president had to say.
Ahmadinejad used the occasion to unveil Tehran's updated strategy for Damascus.
"Nobody, nobody, nobody has the right to kill others, neither the government nor the opponents," said Ahmadinejad to the interviewer.
"Our recommendation is very clear and it is a recommendation for all… for the United States: Instead of capturing or arresting people, they should hear the voice. They should listen to the people and they have things to say. And they should pay attention to their demands and needs. We say that governments must be responsible for the needs and desires of their own peoples, the security of the people and their rights. And this is general for Iran, for Libya, for Syria, for Europe, United States, Africa, everywhere. And this is a general rule for all. We have announced that many times."
He then got down to specifics: "And we are going to make greater efforts to encourage the government of Syria and the other side, all parties, to reach an understanding. But I think and we believe that there should be no interference from outside."
Iran may jump aboard the anti-Assad coalition
Bashar Assad, understanding that his best friend was telling him to stop killing and heed the opposition's demands for a place in government, reacted typically straight from the hip: Just hours after the CNN interview, he cancelled Salehi's visit to Damascus. He also leaned hard on the Lebanese government to boycott him if he arrived in Beirut.
But although Friday, Oct. 21, the visit was confirmed in a meeting between the Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadj and the Lebanese foreign minister, Beirut caved in under the pressure from Damascus and cancelled the visit.
Beirut later explained that President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati would be away on the date attending the funeral of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on Tuesday.
In this way, the Syrian president managed to shoot down the Iranian initiative before it took wing and hit him where it hurt.
But at the same time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources stress, there was no way Assad could erase the fact that Tehran had turned against him and his regime and taken up a position much like that of the Turkish government and its prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan.
Since on Syria, Erdogan lines up with US President Barack Obama, a formidable diplomatic coalition is closing ranks against Assad for the first time since the Syrian uprising began eight months ago. It has enough clout to force him out of the presidency.
A coalition too holey to work
Iran is now part of that alignment, but our sources stress that getting rid of Assad may not be plain sailing given the holes gaping in the emerging anti-Syrian coalition.
Iran and Turkey are drawing close to a rapprochement on Syria after a year of vitriolic exchanges which hit rock bottom when Tehran threatened to punish Ankara with missile attacks on its army bases if Turkish troops entered Syria.
Putting this unpleasantness behind them, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met Salehi in Ankara Friday, Oct. 21 to discuss their shared Kurdish problem.
They agreed on military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against Turkey's Kurdistan Workers’ Party-PKK and its Iranian wing, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan-PJAK.
Right after this accord, heavy Turkish armored forces invaded northern Iraq to attack PKK mountain strongholds.
But the Iranian minister did not miss the chance of his conversation with Davutoglu for a dig at the United States.
Last week, dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in a rash of PKK attacks in the southern region with heavy weapons. According to Salehi, those deaths could have been saved had the Americans warned Ankara about the large-scale Kurdish insurgent infiltrations. The Iranian was implying that Turkish leaders should stop relying on US intelligence tips and for their own good, lean more on Iran. Washington is hardly likely to go along with a rapprochement that hinges on Iranian efforts to displace US influence in Turkey.
Another wing in the anti-Assad coalition is also in question.
Assassination plot preys on US-Saudi willingness to work with Iran
The US and Saudi Arabia remain furious over the Iranian-instigated Al Qods plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Two weeks have gone by since the accusation was first aired, yet neither Washington nor Riyadh has indicated how they mean to respond to an offense Washington called an act of war.
It is therefore hard to tell if the Americans and Saudis are ready to push aside their accusation for the sake of a joint effort with Iran for Assad's removal.
The assassination conspiracy also figures large in Tehran's power struggle.
Supreme Ruler Khamenei's clique strongly disapproved of Ahmadinejad’s CNN interview and his message of condolence to Riyadh on the death of Crown Prince Sultan.
They angrily questioned such actions at a time when Saudi Arabia was accusing Iran of plotting a terrorist operation on US soil and threatening war on the Islamic Republic.
Adding insult to injury, the Iranian president addressed Saudi King Abdullah as Kahdem al-Haramein al-Sharifein (Guardian of the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina). The founder of the Shiite Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini banned the use of this title in reference to the Saudi royal rulers, an issue that has preyed on Tehran-Riyadh relations ever since.
Ahmadinejad is therefore in hot water at home, accused by the Supreme Ruler's faction of acting rashly and compromising Iran's reconfigured policy for removing the Syrian president instead of taking it one careful step at a time.