DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Syria is proving a testing ground for Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s new foreign policy and his battle to assert dominance over the country’s hardliners.
Rohani, who came to power last month, has so far shunned the bellicose rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the United States prepares for strikes on the country’s Syrian ally. By contrast, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said last week that U.S. is flirting with its “most historic defeat” and that intervention would be more dangerous than in Vietnam and could ultimately lead to Israel’s disappearance.
Rohani has promised a more constructive engagement with Western powers as sanctions linked to Iran’s disputed nuclear program cripple the economy of world’s sixth-largest oil producer. His challenge now is to ensure that any U.S. strike on Syria doesn’t upend that policy by giving hardliners an excuse to ratchet up their anti-U.S. rhetoric or place obstacles on the path to a resumption of nuclear talks, which stalled in April.
Iran’s president is “really compelled to either take on the hardliners or to see everything that he was elected to do go up in flames,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington said in a phone interview. Rohani was elected to “resolve the nuclear issue in a way that works to Iran’s advantage and with this kind of mandate it’s clear that Syria would be a major deterrent to any resolution.”
Rohani’s June election victory involved pledges to secure an economic revival in part through “active diplomacy” with Western states. Iran’s economy has suffered as the U.S. and European Union tightened sanctions, with oil output near a 25- year low, inflation reaching 39 percent in August, and gross domestic product forecast by the International Monetary Fund to shrink 1.3 percent this year. Unemployment is 12 percent officially and almost twice that in reality, the Tehran-based Shargh newspaper reported Wednesday.
At first sight, the president’s new approach was in evidence Wednesday when the official Twitter accounts for both Rohani and Prime Minister Javad Zarif congratulated Jews on the Rosh Hashanah celebration.
Yet the intricacies of Iranian politics were underlined Thursday when Mohammad Reza Sadegh, an adviser to Rohani, was quoted as telling the state-run Fars news agency that the Twitter account was run by “backers and fans” of the president and formal announcements by Rohani were made through the presidential office.
Syria may be the most immediate stumbling block to improved foreign relations. Iran has consistently supported Syria’s President Bashar Assad through the two-year civil war, with both countries describing themselves as members of a “resistance front” against Israel.
Speaking Thursday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Barack Obama’s administration is using the chemical attack as a “pretext,” for attacking Syria wouldn’t be motivated by humanitarian reasons but aimed at destroying resistance to what he termed U.S. oppression in the region.
A team of senior Iranian parliamentarians visited Assad in a show of support for the “brother” nation on Sept. 2. Yet Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, didn’t directly answer several questions on what Iran would do if Syria were attacked.
Instead he said any judgment on U.S. allegations of a chemical attack by Assad’s forces in Ghouta outside Damascus last month should await the results of samples taken by United Nations inspectors. Obama said Sept. 3 he was confident Congress would support his plan to attack Syria over the use of chemical weapons.
While not straying from the official line, Rohani’s comments have been measured. Iran “condemns any use of chemical weapons,” which were used against it during the eight-year long war with Iraq that ended in 1988, the president said. On Aug. 29, Rohani also urged the international community “not to jump to conclusions before facts are clear“, warning that military intervention in Syria risked destabilizing the entire region and fueling extremism, he said.
The sensitivity of the issue inside Iran was highlighted this week by reports on comments from former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who’s a backer of Rohani. In an Aug. 31 speech, Rafsanjani was quoted by the Iranian Labour News Agency as saying the Syrian population has come “under chemical attack from their own government.”
The comments were revised within hours by ILNA amid criticism on local hard-line news websites. The updated version read “the people of Syria are the target of a chemical attack.”
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham rejected the comments attributed to Rafsanjani. Still, a video was subsequently posted on a website apparently showing Rafsanjani and with the original comments audible. The video’s authenticity could not be verified.
Analysts say the outcome of the debate on Syria with hardliners within Iran isn’t yet settled.
“It’s quite clear that Iran is going to play the Syria crisis carefully, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to see a resurgence of the hard-line position,” Maloney said.
Iran’s “moderates are in relative minority and the hardliners” around Khamenei “control most of the key levers of power, so they’re always going to be heard a little bit more loudly,” David Hartwell, Mideast analyst at research firm IHS Jane’s, said by phone from London. Military action may mean “that a more moderate approach by Iranians would get killed off before it even begun.”
Rebel groups that have been seeking to topple Assad for 2 1/2 years, with backing from the U.S. and its European and Arab allies, say more than 1,300 people were killed in the chemical attack last month. Syria’s government has denied responsibility.
Keeping Assad in power is of strategic importance to Iran, though it’s “very unlikely” that Iran would get involved in some form of military retaliation against the West or Israel as a consequence of U.S. strikes, Hartwell says.
Saeed Laylaz, a Tehran-based analyst and commentator in moderate Iranian newspapers, says Iran has little reason to step into an armed conflict in support of Syria.
“Iran doesn’t have the capacity to intervene in Syria’s affairs. It isn’t our priority for the time being,” Laylaz said in a note published Sept. 1 in the Etemaad newspaper. “From a geopolitical view, Syria is lost to Iran.”
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