RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
World powers will be gathering in Switzerland next week to look for ways to end Syria's brutal civil war. At this late date, though, representatives of the Syrian opposition are still deciding if they will come. For months now, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been cajoling opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to come to the Geneva conference, but the U.S. would allow Iran only a limited role on the sidelines, although Iran is a major player in the Syrian conflict.
To discuss the implications of this, we brought into our studio Barbara Slavin, an Iran-watcher at the Atlantic Council. Welcome.
BARBARA SLAVIN: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: Remind us, first, of the role that Iran plays in the Syrian conflict. How and why does Iran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
SLAVIN: Well, it's been a 40 year relationship, actually. Syria has been Iran's only real ally in the Arab world, so it's something that goes back to the time of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war when the Syrians took the Iranian's side because they were angry at the Iraqis for other reasons. But it's been a very durable relationship, very useful for both sides.
The Iranians supply all sorts of military goods, and lately they're actually providing oil and money, intelligence operatives, and they've encouraged Hezbollah, which is the Lebanese group very close to Iran, to come in and actually fight on behalf of the Syrian regime. Some say that Hezbollah has actually saved the Syrian regime last summer so it's a really close relationship and has been for a very long time.
MONTAGNE: And in this case on Iran's side is Russia, which is cohosting the Geneva peace talks with the United States. Now, the Russians want the Iranians at the table. Secretary of State Kerry has conceded recently that Iran probably has to be involved, but on the sidelines. What is the latest on Iran's status at these talks?
SLAVIN: Well, it's very complicated. I think the United States recognizes that without Iran there, this isn't going to be a peace conference. It's going to be about something else. The Syrians want it to be about so-called counter-terrorism. The U.S. and the UN probably are going to focus more on humanitarian access, to try to get some more food and medicine into Syrians who are displaced in the country and who are in a terrible state.
But it's not going to be a peace conference without Iran there because of its important role supporting the Syrian regime.
MONTAGNE: You know, one thing, why don't the Obama administration want Iran at the table, given that it has recently engaged with Iran to forge a nuclear deal?
SLAVIN: Well, you know, the nuclear deal is just the sort of tip of the iceberg for the United States and Iran. It's very important. In fact, it's absolutely necessary that this go forward for the relationship to develop. But when it comes to Syria, you have a lot of other equities there. The Saudis, of course, are opposed to having Iran involved.
MONTAGNE: 'Cause they are traditional Shiite power, Sunni power rivals.
SLAVIN: It's Sunni versus Shia, it's Arab versus Persian, you name it. But in this case, the United States has been insisting that the Iranians accept the principals of the first Geneva agreement, which was, I think, in 2012, and agree to have a transitional government replace Assad. This Iranians have refused to do. They're not going to accept any preconditions to come to the table. And frankly, given the situation now, where the Assad regime is actually doing better than it has in a while, this conference is not going to be about a political transition, no matter what the United States says.
MONTAGNE: Right. And that is a very key point, the question of President Assad stepping down or not. Do you see any indication that Iran might be willing to abandon President Assad, to accept some sort of coalition government in Damascus?
SLAVIN: I think the Iranians would be perfectly willing to jettison Assad and they've said so, but they want to know what the alternative is, and as they rightly point out, you have a very confused situation now with a completely fractured opposition and the rise of all these jihadi groups who are militantly anti-Shia. So the Iranians aren't going to throw Assad under a bus unless they know that someone who replaces him will protect their equities in Syria, which means their intelligence contacts, their conduit to Hezbollah, that Syria will remain a friend of Iran after Assad.
MONTAGNE: Barbara Slavin is author of the book "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." Thanks very much for joining us.
SLAVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.