Pragmatism instead of Confrontation

"Iran has done its best to avoid a confrontation in Syria," declared Iran's President Rohani, recently. Should military attacks against Damascus take place, however, he hopes that the strikes will not go on for long and that casualties be kept at a minimum. Tehran would then provide humanitarian aid
"Iran has done its best to avoid a confrontation in Syria," declared Iran's President Rohani, recently. Should military attacks against Damascus take place, however, he hopes that the strikes will not go on for long and that casualties be kept at a minimum. Tehran would then provide humanitarian aid

Iran has welcomed the Russian imitative for international control of Syria's chemical weapon arsenal. The fact that President Obama is now pushing for a diplomatic solution to the conflict is also good news for the moderate forces in Tehran, who do not wish to support Assad at any price. By Marcus Michaelsen

By Marcus Michaelsen

The Revolutionary Leader has remained true to his worldview. The USA's announced intention to punish Syria for its use of poison gas is only a pretext hiding its true plan to expand its power in the region. No one should be convinced by America's supposed humanitarian motives. "We believe, however, that the Americans are making a mistake in Syria and will most certainly suffer damage," explained Ali Khamenei last week in Tehran.

As such, the man at the helm of the Iranian regime has not deviated from his usual rhetoric nor has he refrained from making an explicit threat. Nonetheless, there are clear differences within Khamenei's retinue as to how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

The threatened military attack by the USA had been a source of nervousness in Tehran. It has shaken the sense of tense calm following the surprising results of the Iranian presidential election. After only a month in office, President Hassan Rohani is facing his first domestic – as well as international – challenge.

The Tehran-Damascus axis

Iran is regarded as one of the most important supporters of Syria's ruler Bashar al-Assad. Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been assisting Assad in suppressing the uprising. In addition, the Iranian-supported Lebanese Hezbollah militia has been fighting side-by-side with the Syrian army against the rebels. Syria ensures Iran's strategic influence in the region. With its access to Hezbollah and radical Palestinian groups, it can maintain pressure on Israel and thereby also on America.

Following this line, Qasem Soleimani, commander of an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard, is recently reported to have said that Iran will defend Syria "to the end." Any concessions in Syria, according to the views of the hardliners, would only be a first step toward the American goal of a regime change in Tehran.

The new government has displayed reserve in its reaction. In an interview with the weekly journal "Aseman", Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described an attack by the USA on Syria as an inacceptable move that would violate international conventions. America should have since learned from its experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that political goals cannot be implemented through military force.

At the same time, Zarif has warned of the rising influence of extremist groups, who have been contributing to the escalation of the conflict in Syria. He claims that the deployment of poison gas is just a trap to lure the Obama administration into war.

Fear of Sunni extremism

With this kind of speculation, Zarif is appealing to concerns that Iran really does share with the US. The overthrow of Assad could result in militant Islamists along the lines of Al-Qaida gaining the upper hand. Such groups are said to be supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran's strategic adversaries in the region.

Should an American attack on Syria actually take place, President Rohani has, until now, only offered the possibility of humanitarian aid. At the same time, he has clearly and sweepingly condemned the use of chemical weapons. In fact, a red line has been crossed for Iranians as well. In its war against Iraq, tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers fell victim to Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attacks. Many disabled war veterans are still suffering from the effects.

An escalation of the conflict in Syria does not fit in with Rohani's calculations. Since assuming office, he has been testing his government's freedom to act within the Iranian power structure. He has now directly assigned responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry. In principle, the office of the President takes precedence over the council, yet in reality, Rohani has less influence here than other representatives of the power elite.

"Rohani's most important foreign policy goal is closely tied to his domestic priority, namely, improving the economy. He wants to reach agreement with the West on the nuclear conflict in order to have sanctions lifted, increase oil exports, and to alleviate economic suffering among the population," explains Morad Veisi, former editor-in-chief of a number of well-known reform newspapers in Iran.

Syria poses a danger for the Rohani government

The threat of an imminent American attack on Damascus, however, would strengthen the position of the hardliners in the Iranian leadership. "Syria poses a danger for the Rohani government, because it could call into question improvements in relations with the USA and a possible solution to the nuclear conflict. On-going sanctions would also block the success of Rohani's economic programme," claims Veisi.

So far, President Rohani has been enjoying the backing of his mentor, former President Rafsanjani. He, in turn, directly holds the Assad government responsible for the use of poison gas. As a result, Rafsanjani had to take some harsh criticism from the conservative camp, and he soon relativized his position. Yet, it would not be the first time that this shrewd tactician intentionally broke a taboo in official discourse in order to attain some pragmatic political goals.

The pragmatists in Tehran do not want to support Assad at any price. In the wake of mass imprisonments, over a hundred thousand deaths, and, now, the use of chemical weapons, involvement in an unpredictable conflict is also unpopular with the Iranian population. This was recently demonstrated when Foreign Minister Zarif received more than 2500 comments after publishing his position on Syria on his Facebook account.

The crisis in Syria has thereby become a significant domestic test for the Rohani government. After their clear defeat in the June election, hardliners accepted Rohani's electoral success in order to overcome divisions in the country following the controversial 2009 presidential elections and to further stabilize the system.

The government's response to the crisis in Syria could provide a pretext for imposing limits on the new government. Conversely, it could allow Rohani an opportunity to prove his assertiveness.

Marcus Michaelsen

© 2013

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/