Iran president Hassan Rouhani calls for “free and fair elections in Syria,” says Tehran “ready to engage” neighbors

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures as speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23, 2014. AP

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called for free and fair elections in Syria, saying it would respect any outcome.

Rouhani also said his nation is "ready to engage" with its neighbors on most important issues of the day.

Rouhani says "the best solution is to organize a free and fair elections in Syria" and that once the ballots are cast "we should all accept" the outcome. Iran was barred from participating in the Swiss-based talks to end Syria's civil war.

 

  He told the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday that his country wants to deepen relations, notably trade, with its neighbors and that relations with Europe will be "normalized."

Iran is the regional heavyweight that few want at the negotiating table, but without it any attempt to end the Syria war may be futile. Iran's backing is crucial for President Bashar Assad's hold on power - and for the Iranians, Syria is key to their aspirations of regional power.

   As an international conference on Syria kicked off Wednesday with the participation of more than 40 countries, Iran's absence hung over the meeting, following a diplomatic debacle that saw the U.N. withdraw a last-minute invitation after an uproar from the United States and the Syrian opposition.

The absence of Damascus' strongest regional ally stood out even more given that the biggest supporters of the opposition were all present: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The question of Iran's participation underlines how the international powers that have lined up behind either Assad or the rebels trying to topple him are as crucial to a solution as Syria's warring parties themselves.

Like any of the regional players, Iran can be a spoiler for a resolution it opposes or can be a force for pressuring its side to make concessions.

"The decision to exclude Iran from the Montreux talks is a huge diplomatic mistake," said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

"As a major backer of the current regime, Iran has enormous potential leverage in Damascus," he said.

Syria's 3-year-old conflict is locked into a brutal, bloody deadlock - which in many ways favors Assad's government. Neither side has been able to militarily overwhelm the other, but Assad's forces have gained some momentum, and his government and military have remained cohesive, while rebels have fallen into infighting between Islamic extremist and more moderate factions.

The military dynamic on the ground has given Assad little reason to allow the creation of a transitional government in which he is not a part - and which the U.S. and the opposition says is the peace conference's goal.

But the fight is also a proxy war, with the influence of international powers enabling both sides to dig in.

Shiite-led Iran has poured money into keeping Assad's government afloat financially, has supplied it with weapons and has backed the intervention of fighters from Lebanon's Shiite guerrilla force Hezbollah and from Iraq's Shiite militias on the side of the Syrian military. Tehran is adamant in ensuring the survival of its vital ally that gives it influence squarely in the center of the Arab world. Meanwhile, Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, has provided Damascus important diplomatic cover, blocking several resolutions against it at the U.N. Security Council.

On the other side, Sunni Arab nations in the Gulf - particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar - as well as the United States have thrown their backing behind the rebellion, trying to stem the influence of their rival Iran.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.