As an American military strike looms over Syria, Iran is weighing its decades-long alliance with Syria against its own pledges to reengage with the US and the West over its nuclear program and other issues.
Tehran's combative rhetoric may appear to have changed little: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei likened a Syria strike to a spark to gunpowder, “whose dimensions and consequences are unknown.” And Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari has predicted Syria could become America’s “second Vietnam.”
But the newly elected government of President Hassan Rouhani has struck a far more moderate tone. As a victim of years of chemical weapon attacks during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s – during which Syria was a lone supporter of Iran’s nascent revolutionary regime – Iranian officials have carefully condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any side and urged a diplomatic solution.
“It is a complex process, but I think Iran can do this, keep [the Syria issue] away from its negotiation with the West and also the US on the nuclear file,” says an Iranian analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named.
The Revolutionary Guard has acknowledged providing military assistance and training in Syria and Tehran ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, has made key gains in recent months, fighting on behalf of Damascus. Iran is likely to continue such support as long as Assad is in power – Syria is a critical ally that serves as a bridge to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as a platform of "resistance" in the Arab world, and as a conduit to supply Iran-backed militias.
But “people in Iran highly criticize Iran’s [pro-Assad] policy and the Assad dictatorship,” adds the analyst, noting that Iranians are critical of how Assad has handled the uprising and, blame the regime for the suffering. “You cannot neglect public opinion, even in Iran," he says.
The result is that “if Assad remains in Syria after the strikes, Iran would make efforts to convince him to change his policy toward his people,” says the analyst. “A war, if it occurs, is not the final point for Iran. It is not a game of all or nothing for Iran.”
The Syria crisis is a first foreign policy test for Rouhani, the centrist cleric who won a surprise victory in mid-June elections and took office earlier this month promising to resolve tensions with the West and bring “more transparency” to stalled nuclear talks.
Noting Iran’s history of being targeted with chemical weapons, Rouhani tweeted this week: “Iran gives notice to [sic] international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria.”
Today Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – who is US educated, and spent more than half his life in America – wrote on his Facebook page of the “abhorrent developments in Syria.”
Mr. Zarif condemned the use of chemical weapons, “regardless of its victims or culprits,” while also opposing US strikes on Syria. He asked whether it violated international law to carry out illegal strikes, even if to punish a crime.
“Violence, repression, killing and extremism are repugnant crimes and every actor with influence in Syria must compel the parties to come to the negotiating table,” Zarif wrote on his Facebook page – a first for any Iranian official to use social media to clarify official policy in such detail.
“Is every nation with military might allowed to resort to war or constantly threaten to do so against one or another adversary?” added Zarif. “Have those who maintain ‘all options on the table’ noticed what these options have brought them and others in the past 100 years? Have they not examined the fact that initiators of wars were totally annihilated or failed to achieve their objectives in 85 percent of the cases? And…Let us hope that we can avert another catastrophic adventurism.”
Maintaining the resistance front
Syria remains a key player in the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” against regional domination by the US, Israel, and other American allies.
Tehran's relatively mute reaction to possible US strikes against Syria is a shift from earlier this year, when the Iranian leader’s senior adviser Ali Akbar Velayati declared that any strike against Syria was akin to a strike on Iran.
“Syria plays a very key role in supporting, or God forbid destabilizing, the resistance front,” Mr. Velayati was quoted as saying by Iranian media last January. “For this same reason, attack on Syria is considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”
Some Iranian officials suggest that the August 21 chemical attack was carried out by anti-Assad rebels, which include increasingly high numbers of militant Sunni Islamists, some with ties to Al Qaeda. According to the US, the attack near Damascus killed more than 1,400 people, prompting strident calls for intervention among US and some European leaders.
UN chemical weapons inspectors are expected to complete their investigation into the incident and depart Syria tomorrow.
In Tehran, the Asr-e Iran news website discussed Iranian responses to US strikes. If they were small, the Rouhani administration would likely not react, since it has vowed to create a “win-win” scenario in on-going nuclear talks with six world powers, according to the paper.
But if the strikes were larger and appeared aimed at toppling the Assad regime, then “Iran will consider ‘indirect and unofficial’ confrontation,” the newspaper suggested, using Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups “so that the balance of forces will not be to the detriment of the Syrian government.”
Iran "shouldn't hastily make a political move," argues Dehghani Firouzabadi, a foreign policy researcher at Tehran's official Strategic Research Center run by the Expediency Council, in the Etemaad newspaper. Iran should "use an active regional and wholistic diplomacy even with opposing countries and remind them of war's consequences," he wrote.
The calmer tone from Iran’s political leadership has not kept military commanders from warning of dire consequences if the US strikes, as they have for decades whenever US intervention loomed.
“Despite numerous bitter experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans [in Syria] will complete the domino of their failure and will experience the most shameful and historical defeat,” said Revolutionary Guard chief Maj. Gen. Jafari. “Syria will turn into a field of slaughter and a fiasco much more dangerous than Vietnam…”
While the White House has all but ruled out US boots on the ground, or much more than multiday cruise missile strike akin to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 in Iraq, there could also be benefits to Iran.
“The reality is that Obama’s military action will make the Syria tragedy his and not Iran’s,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, in an analysis for LobeLog.com. “And in Iran’s post-election environment, in which the country has moved towards national reconciliation – both among the elite and between the government and population – nothing suits the Islamic Republic better than divesting itself from this issue quietly.”
“The hardline argument for strongly supporting the Assad regime won in Tehran when his downfall was stated as Washington’s – as well as Riyadh’s and Tel Aviv’s – desired outcome in the name of weakening the Islamic Republic,” adds Ms. Farhi. “But events in Syria are now well beyond the proxy war stage.”