Iran is likely to emerge as a member of a coalition fighting Isis in the aftermath of the Paris massacre, according to senior diplomatic sources.
Tehran’s long-held wish to play a part in the conflict, and thus come in further from the diplomatic cold, may be fulfilled as a realignment begins to take shape between Russia and the West in the effort to defeat the extremist Islamist group.
François Hollande, who has declared that France was “at war” following the attacks that claimed 132 lives, is seeking a broad united front against Isis. This morning Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani telephoned his French counterpart to stress the “crucial importance to fighting against terrorism and Daesh [Isis] with all our might”, as he expressed his condolences over the deaths.
Relations between Paris and Tehran had been fraught in the past but Mr Rouhani chose France, along with Italy, as his destinations for the planned first visit by an Iranian president to the European Union in a decade. The trip, which was expected to yield major business deals between the two countries, was cancelled because of the attacks. But a French official said it will be rescheduled as soon as possible.
The US Secretary of State John Kerry used to insist that it would be “inappropriate” for Iran to be part of an alliance against Isis. But since then Tehran has taken part in the Vienna talks on Syria, something previously opposed by Washington, and at the same time there has been increasing evidence of an indirect liaison between the Americans and Iranians in the campaign against Isis in Iraq.
This week’s impassioned plea by Mr Hollande for a “union of all who can fight this terrorist army in a single coalition” may have tipped the balance towards the possibility of Iranian involvement in the campaign against the jihadists. The French President has asked for Russia and the US to pool their resources, and will meet Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin to press them to take action and achieve “a result which is already too late in coming”
A senior Western diplomat said: “Russia has publicly declared that it’s sharing intelligence on Syria with Iran and Iraq. The US is sharing intelligence on Isis with Iraq, and we know Iraq passes much of that on to Iran.
“We’ve had President Hollande asking for an international response to a barbaric attack on his country, and the Iranians are keen to help. There is a feeling that they should be allowed to do so.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both opposed the nuclear deal with Iran, viewed France as being the toughest among the negotiating states in holding Tehran to account.
“But that situation has changed,” a second Western official said.
“There will be lots of business agreements between Iran and Europe, which is one way of reintegrating the country back into the international community. Letting it become part of an alliance against the greatest terrorist threat we now face, some will say, is another step in that direction.”
Greater co-operation between Russia and the West in combating Isis is now also looking increasingly likely. Mr Obama, facing severe criticism over his Syria policy, met Mr Putin at the G20 summit in Turkey, as did David Cameron. Both American and British officials said afterwards that the talks had been positive.
Mr Putin, in a surprising move, announced at the summit that he would give military support to moderate Syrian rebels in operations against Isis.
The Kremlin has hitherto maintained that there was no such thing as effective moderate opposition groups in Syria, and that those who claimed to be so were extremists in disguise.
However, Moscow has stepped up contact with the Western-backed Syrian opposition and Mr Putin said: “Some armed opposition groups consider it possible to begin active operations against Isis with Russia’s support and we are ready to provide such support from the air.”
Sunni Arab states, which are part of an American led anti-Isis coalition, are opposed to working with Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is bitterly opposed to such a move. However, that country has barely taken part in the air campaign recently, focusing instead on Yemen, where it is struggling in a campaign against Houthi rebels.
“There is increasingly a disconnect,” a Western official said.
“The Saudis see what is happening in Yemen and Iran as the main threat. For us, of course, Isis is the enemy. It’s unlikely there will be a meeting of minds on this.”