Iran's military, religious and political elite are finding it hard to come to grips with the idea that their strategy of unconditionally backing Assad is no longer working. The realization that it was failing first came from academics and analysts working with the government, and has slowly permeated the halls of power.
"Unfortunately there is no other way to exit from this current crisis but the fall of President Bashar Assad," said Aziz Shahmohammadi, an analyst with close ties to the Foreign Ministry who has urged the Iranian leadership to prepare for the worst.
In addition to its peace plan, Tehran has explored talks with Syrian dissidents. The most prominent is Haytham Manna, who lives in Paris and represents the Damascus-based opposition umbrella group the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. The group, which emphasizes peaceful change, has been tolerated by Assad.
Iran has talked with Manna about heading a government while Assad stays on as president until elections, said Hossian Royarvan, a state television analyst on Middle Eastern affairs.
"Manna … has taken trips to Tehran several times and talked with Iranian officials. He wants the structure of state to remain intact as he thinks the structure is in the national interest, but he believes Bashar should quit," said Royarvan. "So Iran is talking with him and trying to find a solution for Syria through dialogue. There is no military solution."
The anxiety has crept into Iranian media, where censors had permitted no criticism or negative stories about Assad until about two months ago. Pro-government and opposition papers have both started running articles that forecast the end of Assad's rule.
On Tuesday, the pro-government paper Etellaat, whose editor is selected by Khamenei, published a story saying that the U.S. and Russia had crafted a joint plan for a transitional government in Syria, which both countries have denied. It included a call by a senior Hamas leader for Assad to be removed from power.
"In the beginning we supported the Syrian government extensively and ignored the opposition and even called them terrorists. It has cost Iran a lot among the Muslims," Abbas Abdi, a leader of the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, said in the reformist daily Etemad last weekend.
Abdi said he believed Iran's new peace plan could have made a difference if it had come earlier, but now it was too little, too late. He called his piece: "Feeling sorry for the lost opportunity in Syria."
Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Ned Parker in Beirut contributed to this report.