Something quite curious --- and possibly significant --- happened last night. The Iranian leadership, having pursued the crushing of dissent within the Islamic Republic, having given full backing to the Assad's regime campaign to stamp out resistance, suddenly recognised the legitimacy of Syrian opposition.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi opened an editorial, published for an international audience via The Washington Post:
When the Islamic Awakening — also known as the Arab Spring — began in December 2010, we all saw people rising up to claim their rights. We have witnessed the emergence of civic movements demanding freedom, democracy, dignity and self-determination.
We in Tehran have watched these developments with delight. After all, a civic movement demanding the same things that many Arabs want today is what led to the emergence of our Islamic Republic in 1979.
The message to Iranians was similar, with media highlighting the statement of President Ahmadinejad, in a photo opportunity with a Pakistani envoy, that "respecting the freedom and rights of the Syrian people is the Islamic Republic's fundamental policy".
I suspect that the Iranian regime will not acknowledge this is a shift, claiming it has always supported President Assad's efforts for "reform", including elections. That is true, but the priority up to now has been Assad in power first, then that reform. Now the signal appears to be that reform could include negotiation of the opposition's demand that Assad leave power.
So, if that is true, what is the explanation? There are four possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:
1. PLAYING FOR TIME
Some EA staff see this as a manoeuvre to buy time, while the regime tries to deal with pressure over its nuclear programme and a stumbling strategy in the Middle East --- the new Egyptian leadership preferring to talk to Saudi Arabia rather than Tehran, Turkey working with Arab States rather than giving Iran a lead role, no visible alliance around the "Islamic Awakening" --- as well as the crisis in Syria.
An EA correspondent goes farther, "Salehi has no say in politics --- it's the Sepah [Revolutionary Guards] and the Supreme Leader who rule. Wait for fierce reactions tomorrow."
2. PLAYING FOR STRENGTH
The Islamic Republic's own line will be that it is exercising leadership in the region, countering the dangerous intervention of the US and European states. And, with the United Nations effort to negotiate a resolution unofficially deceased, there is space for that effort.
However, Iran's presentation of this verges on political comedy. Salehi's repeated call, put forth in the Washington Post editorial, for a dialogue bringing together the Syrian regime and opposition groups is fair enough. Its execution has been another matter.
At short notice, Tehran declared a meeting in Tehran of countries with "sensible positions on Syria". Salehi assured on Wednesday that 12 nations will show up for a most significant conference, but declined to name them.
It is unlikely that this supposed high-profile gathering will amount to much. Instead, it exposes Iran's real motive, which was to grab the spotlight from next week's extraordinary meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, hosted by Saudi Arabia.
The true measure of Iran's position is that President Ahmadinejad had to await an invitation from the Saudis to be at that table. Which brings us to....
3. PLAYING FROM WEAKNESS
Sending one high-ranking official on an urgent mission is diplomacy. Sending two looks like concern. Having one of them slapped in the face might induce panic.
The trip of Saeed Jalili, the head of the National Security Council, to Lebanon and then to a face-to-face with Assad in Damascus on Tuesday appears to be a mission to assess the situation and to hold the line, even if the Syrian regime is crumbling.
That effort, however, was overshadowed by the visit of Foreign Minister Salehi to Ankara and its far-from-successful outcome.
Salehi and other Iranian officials wanted to portray the discussion with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as an acknowledgement of mutual interests and close relations. Tehran, however, had already fouled its diplomatic nest.
Last Saturday's abduction of 48 Iranians near Damascus brought an important shift on the ground of negotiations. Whether or not the men are currently connected with the Revolutionary Guards or other branches of the Iranian military, Tehran now had to deal urgently with the situation and the perception that its forces have been in Syria. That, at the very least, undercut its whiter-than-thou position against "foreign intervention".
And that event brought interventions by Iranian officials that complicated Salehi's mission. Far from pursuing diplomacy, officials from the head of Iran's armed forces to the Speaker of Parliament warned of consequences for Turkey, as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, if any of the 48 Iranians was harmed.
Ankara was not going to let that slip by. So, while Salehi tried to pronounce Iran and Turkey agreeing on co-operation, the Turkish Foreign Ministry was letting media know who was boss:
1. We strongly denounce baseless accusations and extremely imprudent threats issued against our country by Iranian officials — above all, by Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabad [who threatened Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia with consequences if any of the 48 Iranians abducted in Syria were harmed].
2. Turkey has always acted in a principled manner, as it did in recent nuclear negotiations. The continuation of anti-Turkish remarks amounts, nevertheless, to recklessness.
3. Everyone inside and outside of Syria knows who is responsible for the human drama caused by the Syrian regime and the deaths of hundreds of innocent people every day. They will certainly be called to account for their acts when judged by history and conscience.
4. Irresponsible statements must stop.
This was more than a demand that Tehran watch its mouth. Turkish officials effective said to Iran: we will continue to support the Syrian insurgency, with funds and arms as well as political backing. You don't like that? Then get Assad to step down.
4. CHAOS THEORY
This week's developments also indicate Iranian weakness in diplomacy is compounded by weakness in Tehran. Put bluntly, the left hand and the right hand of the regime are not necessarily working together.
This is far from a new feature: President Ahmadinejad's power play in 2010/11, with an attempt to seize power from the Foreign Ministry, led to division and uncertainty, and the interventions of the military and Revolutionary Guards have caused further difficulties. In theory, the Supreme Leader is supposed to ensure a unified line, but his office has either been unwilling or unable to keep all in order.
The sudden recognition that Assad cannot be saved appears to have compounded the rush to statement at the expense of co-ordination.