BEIRUT—A U.S. attack on Syria would likely dash expectations of progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran and undermine new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s call for improving relations with the West, diplomats said.
An attack on Damascus would likely give Iranian hard-liners, who oppose a nuclear compromise, the upper hand over moderate President Hasan Rouhani, who has made foreign policy and nuclear talks a priority.
The deputy commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, said on Monday that the U.S. would be “crossing a red line” if it violated Syria’s borders and warned of dire consequences for Washington, according to Iranian media.
Syria’s army and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, would target American warships in the Mediterranean Sea with ballistic missiles in the event of military action against Syria’s regime, a high-level Iranian officials said, according to Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran, meanwhile, would be unlikely to engage in direct warfare with the U.S. or its allies over Syria, according to Western diplomats in Iran.
Instead, they could respond by refusing to make any compromise in future negotiations on its uranium enrichment program, and refraining from direct talks with the U.S., diplomats and experts said.
While the next round of international talks with Iran have yet to be scheduled, and no direct U.S. talks are set, Mr. Rouhani has raised expectations of progress on both fronts.
“If Washington attacks Syria, it’s a game changer for negotiations with Iran. It will damage diplomatic efforts,” said a Western diplomat based in Tehran.
Two prominent foreign envoys, on separate trips with similar agendas, were in Tehran on Monday to engage Iranian officials on regional issues including Syria’s conflict, the political crisis in Egypt and stability in Lebanon.
These officials were also informally gauging Iran’s intention for direct talks with the U.S. and its willingness to negotiate on its nuclear program, according to western diplomats familiar with the visits.
Jeffrey Feltman, the top political adviser for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a former senior U.S. diplomat, and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who has been a go-between with Iran on several occasions, separately met with Iranian officials.
The two envoys have “had conversations with American officials and they discuss that with us,” said Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, in response to whether they carried messages from the U.S., according to official Iranian media. Both envoys couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Obama administration and its European allies were monitoring Mr. Feltman’s and the Omani leader’s visits to Tehran in order to get a sense of how quickly negotiations with Tehran might pick up, said U.S. and European officials.
The White House hopes a resumption of talks between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program can commence before the annual United Nations General Assembly in September in New York, according to these officials.
Iran’s President Rouhani, who took office this month, has said that his administration would take concrete steps to improve Iran’s relations with the world and resolve the nuclear impasse with the West.
He has named Western-educated and internationally versed officials in his cabinet nominations to important posts, in steps toward reshaping Iran’s tarnished image.
But a U.S.-led attack on Syria would undermine Mr. Rouhani’s plans and allow hard-core conservatives to sideline his moderate cabinet members by arguing that the region is in a state of emergency.
“A direct U.S.-Iran conflict in Syria will only widen the chasm of mistrust needed to be bridged in order to reach a nuclear accommodation,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Syria is a strategic ally of the Islamic Republic and a lifeline for its proxy militia, the Lebanese political and militant group Hezbollah.
Iran, along with Russia, has remained a steadfast supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and urged a political settlement with the opposition for a transition that includes Mr. Assad.
Iran has also aided Mr. Assad’s military in its fight against rebel opposition forces with arms, training, cash and fighters, according to members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has denied any military involvement in Syria. But several Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders have said that Iran has helped train and create militia forces in Syria, according to Iranian state media.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his close circle of advisers, including commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, determine Iranian policiessuch as involvement with Syria, talks with the U.S. and nuclear negotiations.
Mr. Rouhani has been working to convince Mr. Khamenei to divert this decision-making process to moderate technocrats and experts at the Foreign Ministry in an effort to unify Iran’s positions on key state matters and build trust with the West, according to an adviser to the president.
The newly appointed Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a former ambassador to the U.N., said last week that Mr. Rouhani might shift responsibility for nuclear policy within his administration to the foreign ministry, away from the national security committee, where hard liners have more influence. Iran has denied Western reports that its nuclear program is for military purposes.
“U.S. attacks on Syria would complicate Rouhani and Zarif’s foreign diplomacy,” said Fereydoun Majlesi, a former Iranian diplomat and political analyst in Tehran.
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