Iran has been one of the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, even loaning Bashar al-Assad some of its elite Revolutionary Guards to protect him. But Iran just held a presidential election in which the victor was Hasan Ruhani, a moderate cleric who resigned his previous post shortly after current president Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected, due to clashes with the then-new president. How will last Friday’s election of Hasan Ruhani affect the intractable situation in neighboring Syria?
In the short term, not much. First, because he will not be inaugurated for two more months. Second, because as a moderate (not really a reformist) he will want to antagonize the conservative clerical establishment as little as possible, especially early in his tenure, until he can build political alliances to support his position. Third, because the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria’s civil war pushes Shi’ites to support the Assad regime, as seen in Islamic State of Iraq‘s killing of 60 Shi’ites in Hatla last Tuesday and their demolition of the Shi’ite husayniyya there on Friday. Ruhani is a Shi’ite cleric and Iran will remain the major Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Given that a large portion of the Syrian rebel forces is run by Sunni jihadis, Iran will continue to support Assad against them.
In the long term, the election of a moderate Iranian president might make something of a difference, although in precisely what form is unclear. Ruhani has promised increasing “integration” with the rest of the world in order to reverse the isolation Iran has experienced under Mahmud Ahmadinejad. While most US observers hear this and think of the stalled nuclear talks (Ruhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator until his resignation in 2005), increasing dialogue with the rest of the world may also serve to broaden international cooperation around Syria. What benefit may arise from that increased dialogue is unclear at this time, although reduced likelihood of an Iranian strike at Israel in the event of a US-supported military defeat of Assad is among them. Of course, any benefits derived from increased Iranian willingness to dialogue with other countries will only be realized slowly, if the Syrian conflict extends for more years. Given the current state of violence, and the threat of a post-Assad second war between jihadis and secularist Sunnis, such a scenario seems plausible.