Has Iran begun to back down on Syria?

Published in Iran

By Fatima Alsmadi

Has Iran’s position on Syria begun to change? This is a crucial question, as Iran’s tone toward military action against Syria has altered from being threatening throughout years of supporting the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Asad, to milder rhetoric. It appears that the issues around the use of chemical weapons instigated this change. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, strongly criticised the use of chemical weapons in a Twitter post, and his subsequent tweets supported the forcible prevention of their use. This coincided with the threat of a military strike on Syria – Iran’s strategic ally in the region – by the United States and some of its allies.

Using the ethical pretext

It is possible that the Iranian government is certain about evidence that alleges that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on 21 August in Ghouta. If true, this would pose an ethical dilemma for the Islamic Republic, including in how it presents the case to its citizens. Turning a blind eye to this information would also undermine the decades-long attempts by the Iranian government to punish those responsible for targeting citizens with internationally-banned chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

Iranian records indicate that the Iranian government is seeking to prosecute 400 international companies accused of providing assistance in the field of chemical weapons to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime.[1] A Dutch company has already been prosecuted for its involvement. Tehran has hosted several meetings to discuss this issue; one of the most important was an international meeting held in 2007 to discuss the effects of chemical weapons against Iran. Iran annually commemorates the chemical weapons attacks against it by the Iraqi army. The Iranian foreign ministry, in collaboration with various Iranian organisations – including the Foundation for Protection of Chemical Weapons’ Victims – also regularly publishes research to discuss the political, legal, medical, social and human rights aspects of this issue. The Martyrs’ Foundation claims that 100 000 Iranians were injured as a result of exposure to chemical gases during that war. This issue was highlighted again recently when CIA documents obtained by Foreign Policy magazine confirmed that Washington had assisted the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, to launch a chemical attack – using nerve gas – against Iranian troops.[2]

It cannot simply be assumed that Rouhani’s tweets suggest a new Iranian position. However, they are not only Rouhani’s personal opinion, but reflect a possible change in Tehran’s stance. Although Iran will obscure this change with an ethical pretext, the actual issue might be deeper; it is possible that it is related to Iran’s inability to manoeuvre on the Syrian question. In contrast to previous discourse, the phrase ‘extremist militant groups’ is not found in Rouhani’s tweets. This may be the beginning of his quest to follow a more realist and softer path in Iranian foreign policy on a number of issues, including Syria. Furthermore, Tehran does not want to overstep the Russian position, which has already softened.

The content and tone of the discourse of political and military leaders in Iran clearly indicate a declining possibility of military confrontation between Iran and western powers over Syria. Remarks by Revolutionary Guard commanders had previously asserted that any military action against Syria would be regarded as a direct strike against Iran. Recent statements have been warnings to the United States that crossing the red line in Syria would have disastrous repercussions,[3] that the subsequent situation in the region would not be in Israel’s favour, and that Iran would be forced to defend itself against direct and indirect threats.[4]

This warning tone characterised the assertion of the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, that US intervention would be disastrous for the region and the USA. He maintained that foreign intervention would be ‘a spark near a barrel of gunpowder’, and that it would only lead to stoking the flames of war and conflict.[5] Despite reports of Khamenei’s refusal to enter into mediations presided over by Oman, it seems clear that the leader’s issues were warnings, not threats.

It is noticeable that the chairperson of the Iranian Shura Council, Ali Larijani, made stronger statements than those of the military leaders. Yet he also avoided referring to an Iranian reaction. In relation to a Syrian response, he said:

The potential air raids that are launched against Syria, which has suffered from widespread destruction at the hands of terrorists in the last two years, will not be as harsh as what others will receive from Syria itself. If westerners and certain countries in the region want to ignore international laws and norms in favour of the Zionist entity during this venture, there is no reason for Syria to respect them either.

Larijani asserted that it was naïve of the countries ‘participating in a venture against Syria’, to believe that they would succeed in making subsequent substantial changes in a ‘hit-and-run’ attack. This is especially true given the current circumstances, and the interests of these countries. If these countries intervene, he said, they would enter into a war with unknown results…their plan seems to be based on weak foundations.[6] Larijani’s statements may have signalled the formation of a more hardline parliamentary bloc opposing Rouhani’s foreign policy. The overall statements of political and military leaders in Iran, however, corresponded with the milder tone of major leaders in the Revolutionary Guard and the army. This concurs with Iran’s deep strategic interests in Syria, and the fact that ‘the Iranian response to a military strike will be timely’.[7]

The Syrian crisis dominated talks recently held in Tehran during the visit by UN envoy Jeffrey Feltman, who had been at the forefront of those accusing Asad of assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. Syria was also the focus of the visit of the Sultan of Oman, Sultan Qaboos. It was reported that he had conveyed messages from the USA to Khamenei regarding Syria.

An Iranian military response would certainly have a negative impact on Iran’s negotiations with the West, and on the issue of sanctions relief. Tehran does not seem willing to sacrifice its interests for its ally.[8]

Iran is undoubtedly aware that Syria is in a chaotic state. This makes it difficult for Iran to believe that the Asad regime won’t negatively impact the nuclear talks, which is Iran’s highest priority. Iran’s declining ability to manoeuvre on Syria is closely linked to its need to end the logjam in its foreign policy relating to a number of issues, particularly Syria. Iran is seeking an influential role in reorganising a post-Asad Syria, which is a similar role to the one it played in Afghanistan. This necessity is enhanced by the fact that a military strike against Syria would confront Rouhani’s foreign policy, led by his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, with major complications that would compel Iran to find pragmatic solutions. This is especially true since the selection of Zarif as foreign minister, and since the leader of a negotiating team regarding the nuclear issue sent messages to the USA that Iran was serious about ending the tension and resolving disputed issues. Zarif was part of the negotiating team to end the Iraq-Iran war, and he also participated in negotiations on Afghanistan with the USA after the 9/11 attacks.

Three options

Generally, depending on the overall political conduct of Iran, it has three options in the case of a US-led military strike against Syria:[9]

  • Silence. If a military strike was only a warning to Asad’s government, and lasted only a few days, it will not lead to drastic changes in the balance of power between the regime and the opposition. It is likely that the Islamic Republic will then resort only to verbal condemnation. This supposition is supported by the fact that the government seeks to avoid creating new tensions with the rest of the world, and that it seems determined to strengthen diplomatic relations and negotiated solutions to resolve the nuclear crisis. It therefore does not make sense that Rouhani’s government would engage in a clash with major powers because of a limited military intervention in Syria.
  • Indirect Intervention. If US military intervention crosses the line of being a mere warning – in terms of resulting in a change in the power relations between the Syrian regime’s army and the rebels, it will increase the chances of the fall of Bashar al-Asad. This might cause Iran to respond indirectly through Hizbullah, and through some Palestinian factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose ties with Iran have recently been strengthened. It is unlikely that Hizbullah will be able to move away from the overall Iranian direction. Despite having nearly 60 000 rockets including, several hundred medium-range ones with high destructive ability,[10] Hizbullah’s involvement in such a war will depend on decisions made by Iran, and Hizbullah will have to assess the consequences of striking Israel, as the Israeli response will not be limited.
  • Direct intervention. This scenario seems the least plausible, but not entirely unlikely, considering the path that Iran’s foreign policy has been forging for more than three decades. Iran’s position will thus be strongly associated with the Russian and Chinese positions, despite Iran’s preferences to act on its own.

*Dr. Fatima Alsmadi is a senior researcher at Al Jazeera Center for Studies, and an expert on Iranian affairs. She specialises in Central Asia studies.


Al Jazeera Net (2007) ‘During its war with Iraq: Iran pursues companies it accuses of arming Saddam, Al Jazeera Net, 23 October. http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/b57820b6-3713-4736-88b8-cb532bc3dcdc.

Harris, Shane and Aid, Matthew (2013), ‘Secret CIA files prove America helped Saddam as he gassed Iran’, Foreign Policy, 16 August. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/25/secret_cia_files_prove_america_helped_saddam_as_he_gassed_iran.

Deutsche Welle (2013), ‘Syrian developments: Syria and Iran warned against military action’, 25 August. http://www.dw.de/%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%AF-%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87-%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%B4%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%86%D8%AF/a-17043597.

Al Hayat (2013), ‘Iranian military official: Iran will be forced to defend itself against any threats’, 25 August. http://alhayat.com/Details/545073

Tabnak (2013), ‘America will incur damages in Syria as in Iraq and Afghanistan’, Tabnak News Website, 28 August. http://www.tabnak.ir/ar/news/14656/.

Tabnak (2013), ‘Ali Larijani: Fanning the flames of war will harm the naive countries in the region’, Tabnak News Website, 28 August. http://www.tabnak.ir/ar/news/14657/.

Iran Diplomacy (2012), ‘Iran’s response to a possible strike’, Iran Diplomacy, 6 August. http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/fa/page/1920478/%D9%88%D8%A7%DA%A9%D9%86%D8%B4+%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86+%D8%A8%D9%87+%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87+%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84%DB%8C+.html.

Iran Diplomacy (2012), ‘Will Rouhani’s road be more difficult? The impact of attacking Syria on negotiations with Iran’, Iran Diplomacy, 6 August. http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/fa/page/1920491/%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%AB%DB%8C%D8%B1+%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87+%D8%A8%D9%87+%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87+%D8%A8%D8%B1+%D9%85%D8%B0%D8%A7%DA%A9%D8%B1%D9%87+%D8%A8%D8%A7+%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86+.html.

Iran Diplomacy (2013), ‘Iran’s options in face of a military strike on Syria’, Iran Diplomacy, 6 September. http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/fa/page/1920484/%DA%AF%D8%B2%DB%8C%D9%86%D9%87+%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C+%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86+%D8%AF%D8%B1+%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B1+%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87+%D8%A8%D9%87+%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87+.html.

al-Doweri, Fayez (2013) ‘Options for military action against Syria’, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 28 August. http://studies.aljazeera.net/reports/2013/08/201382893040564778.htm.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 16:42

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