Iran preparing for a Syria without Assad

Peace plan calls for election that could oust regime

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It supports a transitional government and elections for parliament and president, but does not spell out whether it hopes Mr. Assad — or at least the core of his regime — can hang on.

The overall message, though, seems to be that Tehran acknowledges it cannot hang its entire strategy on Mr. Assad’s survival and needs to build new alliances as contingencies.

One of Iran’s likely chief aims is to ensure Hezbollah supply lines remain open even if Mr. Assad’s regime goes down.

But the main rebel groups already are strongly opposed to Iran and are backed by a roll call of Tehran foes: the U.S. and Western allies, and Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A clampdown on aid routes to Hezbollah could be possible as payback for supporting Mr. Assad.

Iran is concerned about the power of pro-Saudi forces if Assad is brought down,” said Tehran-based strategic affairs analyst Hasan Hanizadeh. “It is trying to organize other groups in Syria as alternatives just in case.”

It is unclear where Shiite power Iran could find support outside of Mr. Assad’s Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority in Syria fighting a rebellion dominated by the Sunni Muslim sect.

Some in the merchant establishment and others loyal to Mr. Assad’s regime could be a place for Iran to exert possible influence.

But there are many wild cards in the mix, including Sunni groups among the rebels that could take a dim view of any Shiite forces.

Any major policy shifts in Iran must be approved by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who last week urged a Syrian cease-fire to allow talks between the opposition and Mr. Assad’s government.

“One thing is for sure,” said Mr. Javedanfar, the analyst. “Despite their friendship, Khamenei will not want to sink with Assad.”

‘Two political paths’

Iran also has deeper problems at home.

Western sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program are cutting deeper into critical oil exports, with the U.S. applying greater pressure on Iran’s major Asian customers to further trim purchases.

Iranian Finance Minister Shamseddin Hosseini was quoted Sunday by the economic daily Donya-e-Eqtesad as saying oil revenue had dropped 50 percent because of sanctions, but said that shifts to non-oil exports and more aggressive tax policies have helped ease the shortfall.

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