Iran's Syria options limited as Assad battles on
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's clerical leadership never misses a chance to parade on the international stage and it has been buoyed by suggestions the oil-producing nation of 75 million might join a group of global powers intended to revive peace efforts in Syria.
The reality however is a little different. The Islamic Republic appears to be running out of options if it is to maintain its influence in Syria and by extension its ability to manipulate events across the Middle East.
Wedded to President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown against Syrian rebels, distrusted by opposition groups and sanctioned by Western nations over its controversial nuclear program, Iran's top authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has little room to maneuver, say diplomats and analysts.
The only real tool left in Iran's locker would seem to be raising the fear - and arguably an implied threat - of protracted and bloody civil conflict in Syria. Tehran hopes it could force Western governments to step back and focus instead on the idea of working with Syria's power structure.
"The Iranians want to play a role, but only to protect their interests. It's a serious predicament and there's no Plan B. Changing course is going to be very difficult for them," said a European diplomat based in Tehran.
For Tehran, having a voice on a Syrian contact group as proposed by special envoy Kofi Annan would serve as a way of safeguarding its interests beyond its borders, give it a hand in shaping events inside Syria and ensure the popular revolutions that have gripped the Middle East do not spread to Iran.
But that role already looks out of reach. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rebuffed suggestions of Iranian involvement, accusing the country of helping Damascus to "stage-manage the repression" and British officials are equally frosty.
Few doubt they can be persuaded to change their minds.
In recent years Iran's Shiite theocracy has strengthened its alignment with Syria's nationalist secular government to further its opposition to Israel and as a counterweight against Sunni powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia.
Together Damascus and Tehran count among their achievements confronting former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and - through supporting the militant Hezbollah movement - forcing Israel to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
There is little doubt about the concern felt in Tehran's corridors of power over the crisis in Syria. But Iran's leadership isn't panicking just yet.
"If things keep ticking the way they are now, the Iranians are sitting relatively comfortably," said a western diplomat, referring to the level of violence going on. "The Russians are doing all the heavy lifting internationally and Iran can just sit back behind them."
For now, Iran is doing what it can to help Assad to hang on. That includes supplying training, weapons and communications expertise to assist Syrian forces in wiping out rebel groups.
A senior commander in Iran's Al-Quds Brigade - the revolutionary force with a special focus on military operations outside the country - was last month quoted in official media as hinting that Iranian forces were active inside Syria.
Initially, Iran viewed the Arab Spring as a welcome trend. Tehran's political elite watched those they regarded as pro-western dictators being swept away by what they saw as a vibrant "Islamic awakening".
But the situation in Syria threw the Iranian theocracy into some apparent confusion. At first Iran's leaders were defiant, then the language mellowed as the crisis deepened. There were opaque calls for the Syrian government to reform and for the "legitimate demands" of the people to be met.
But as Assad dug in, so Iran's leaders reaffirmed their support. Guiding them was the increasing involvement of rival regional powers - Qatar and Saudi Arabia - which were starting to fund Syrian opposition groups.
LOOKING BEYOND ASSAD
Iran is however less wedded to Assad and more to what his leadership represents. Khamenei may decide to let go of Assad in favor of retaining his security apparatus, diplomatic sources say.
"Iran may be ready for after Assad but not for the end of the Baath regime," said a non-western diplomat based in Tehran. As long as the Iranians can rely on keeping the bulk of the security establishment in place, he said, Assad could be dispensable.
The source also alluded to Iran's flirtations with Syrian opposition groups. There had been indirect contact with the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition organization based in Turkey, he said.
"It is clear they are making some plans with possible opposition contacts but the situation is very fluid," the diplomat added.
Opposition figures however say they have no trust in Iran, given its support for Assad's persecution of his own people.
"It's difficult to see any members of the Syrian opposition wanting to even be seen talking to an Iranian official, let alone work with them," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
"It would cost them dearly in terms of legitimacy, while damaging any relations they may have with the Saudis or the Turks."
There are also suspicions Iran may try its hand at securing concessions from the West over its nuclear program in return for withdrawing support for Assad.
Iran's economy is suffering from tough sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, which accuse Tehran of seeking to develop an atomic weapons capability.
Diplomats say such bargaining would not succeed given some Western estimates that Assad can only hold on for so long.
The end of the regime could leave Iran diplomatically exposed and isolated to an unprecedented extent, Javedanfar said.
Ultimately, isolation is what Iran fears most. Its biggest concern is that it becomes "the next step of the Middle East revolutions project," said the non-Western diplomat in Tehran.
For 33 years the Islamic Republic has survived in adverse conditions but it remains deeply sensitive to the explosive demonstrations that erupted in Iran after elections in 2009 that threatened its very existence.
"Probably the most important factor in their decision-making is the worry that failure in Syria will lead to copy-cat actions in Iran," said Ali Ansari of Scotland's St Andrew's University.
"The key for them here is not necessarily to prevent the fall of Assad but to suggest that any fall would be long bloody and protracted, as a useful deterrence to their own opposition. It's cynical but effective."
(Reporting By Marcus George; Editing by Giles Elgood)