By Ali Hussein Bakeer
With the development of the Syrian crisis, there has recently been an increase in discussion about the Iranian regime and the shift in rhetoric towards Damascus by some of its members. This has been with respect to recognizing the existence of a real revolution, the urging of Assad to see the importance of understanding popular demands and the need to open a dialogue between the regime and the opposition. This is all evidence of the existence of a real shift in Iranian policy.
This also coincided with talk about disagreements within the ruling authority in Iran regarding the stance toward Assad, and several specialists and analysts considered these signals to be a declaration of Tehran’s unwillingness to stand by its strategic ally in the Arab world until the end, especially as it comes at a time when the Syrian regime is in dire need of support from all its allies.
The developing Iranian stance on the Assad regime
– The Iranian government’s stance:
Since August, it has been possible to see a change in Iranian rhetoric toward the Syrian situation. On 08/24/2011, Hizbullah’s television station, Al-Manar, conducted an interview with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during which he said: “The Syrian people and the Syrian government should sit down together to reach an understanding… when there is a problem between the people and their leaders, they should sit down together to reach a solution away from violence. It is not right for anyone of them to kill the other.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi then expressed the same position but in a more pronounced way when he described the claims made through demonstrations in Syria as “legitimate”, demanding that the Assad regime recognizes it and responds to it quickly.
Later, some in the Iranian media, in particular those supporting the president, began to modify their rhetoric from full support of the regime, to broadcasting the views of both parties (the regime and the demonstrators).
– The Iranian opposition’s stance:
The Iranian opposition in turn took advantage of these signals to publicly express its opposing view of the country’s official policy of open support for the Assad regime; particularly as Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Dastagheib – a prominent reformist and a member of the Assembly of Experts – had previously questioned his country’s strategy, calling for resources to be allocated to the Iranian people rather than to supporting the Syrian regime.
The Iranian authorities also overlooked similar views in the press and the media. The Center for Iranian Diplomacy, which is managed by former Ambassador Sadeq Kharrazi, for example, published an interview with former ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan, Mohammad Ali Sobhani, under the title “Iranian unilateral support for Assad would damage Tehran”, in which he spoke about the need to amend the official stance because it may not serve Iranian interest at the present time.
Moreover, the Iranian newspaper “East” published news of 200 Iranian physicians, some of whom are the most prominent doctors in the country and includes the former health minister , sending a letter to Assad, “the doctor”, urging him to end the “violence”.
Interpretation of developing Iranian stances
A number of researchers have interpreted this general orientation, at the official level and what followed it on other levels from three perpsectives:
- Firstly: That this forms the beginning of Iran’s abandonment of its Syrian ally, that Tehran is repositioning itself in preparation for jumping off Assad’s sinking ship, and that it will not support the regime to the end.
- Secondly: That this rhetoric reflects a split in the official Iranian structures, over the stance toward Assad’s regime, between the hardliners and the moderates.
- Thirdly: That this shift in rhetoric is rather an extension of the battle that continues between the Iranian president and his supporters on one side and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his supporters on the other, and that Ahmadinejad has decided to move this battle between him and the Supreme Leader to the Syrian arena through this rhetoric.
However, the haste in reaching such inaccurate conclusions reveals a very superficial understanding and analysis of Iranian policy.These statements cannot in any way be considered neither as a strategic shift in Iranian policy toward the Assad regime, nor a pivotal turning point in the way Tehran deals with its allies.
What happened should be considered only as a tactical move similar to a combination of taking protective cover and sending up a trial balloon, especially if we exclude the position of the Iranian opposition, which can be considered natural in the context of irritating the Iranian regime, whether the opposition believes in what it says or only says it for the sake of opposing, and we focus on the official stance. On this basis, an analysis of the Iranian position commences from certain considerations, of which, perhaps, the most important are:
1- The inability of Iran to continue with a policy of misinformation from its affiliated and allied news organizations, especially as the media coverage of the Syrian situation has increased, and a rise into the thousands in the number of victims as a result of the Syrian regime’s practices . Also the attempt to absorb the resentment of protesters who have started to show hostility towards Tehran apparent through slogans and the burning of the Iranian flag, because of their belief that Tehran supports the Syrian regime through repression and assassination.
2- A negative change in the Arab population’s mood toward Iran, to a large degree is due to the Iranian stance on Bahrain and subsequent open support of the Assad regime that reveals the truth that Iranian policy is based on sectarian factors. The expedited procedures through which the Iranian government pushed each of its allies in Iraq and Lebanon to support the Syrian regime have firmly established this truth. In the face of this reality, it was necessary for the Iranian government to take measures to save face and to halt the deterioration of its image, as its foreign policies depend in principle on the existence of a supportive popular environment.
3- Growing regional and international positions have imposed a softening in Iranian rhetoric and reduced the hostility of their official stance on the Syrian Revolution. This period has witnessed an escalation in regional and international steps against the Assad regime, most notably the Gulf stance, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the strong message sent by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in addition to the withdrawal of the Gulf States’ ambassadors from Damascus. The Turkish stance should not be ignored, as it announced its disappointment and complete loss of trust in Assad, and took more stringent steps.
Even allies of the Syrian regime, such as Moscow and Beijing, sent strong and stern messages at that time. The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned his Syrian counterpart that he would be “facing an unfortunate fate” if the situation was not solved. In such a situation it was necessary for Tehran to review its stance, at least in order for it not to openly appear as the world’s leading capital to be publicly supporting the Assad regime.
4- The equation being used by the Syrian regime from the start which is based on exploiting the time element, opened the door for the Iranian maneuver to create internal divisions between the different Syrian forces and external divisions between foreign powers regarding the necessity of calling for dialogue between the regime and the opposition. It is also possible for Tehran to use this rhetoric in order to press for the accomplishment of an idea based on involving some elements of the opposition in power sharing and, consequently, preventing the entire collapse of the system.
5- The opening of channels of communication with the Syrian opposition under the pretext that Tehran is against Western intervention in Syria. The turning point in Iran’s “rhetoric” came at a time when different Syrian opposition parties gathered for consecutive meetings and made numerous efforts to unite internally and abroad, in an attempt to create a nucleus from which to pave the way for a peaceful transitional stage to bring democracy to the country after the end of the Assad regime. With negotiations between opposition parties reaching advanced stages simultaneously with the deterioration of the Syrian regime’s legitimacy at home and abroad, it was inevitable that Iranian pragmatism would try to find channels of communication with the Syrian opposition, if only as a precaution from what may come, and these statements were to help look for such channels. It is thought that such tactics were to maintain a channel of communication with the opposing sides while at the same time preserving the country’s national interests; these are considered basic truths about Iranian politics.
6- The presence of Iranian ambition to play the role of mediator between the regime and the Syrian opposition in the event the regime reaches a critical stage. Ahmadinejad explicitly expressed this view in an interview with the American news channel CNN in October 2011, and excerpts from the interview were shown in Farsi on the Iranian government broadcasting website. In the interview, Ahmadinejad said that his country would make every effort to bridge the gap between the opposition and the Syrian government in order to reach an understanding to resolve the crisis in Damascus.
Some Iranian circles believe that playing such a role will indirectly help maintain the Assad regime even if that requires giving some opposition members a share in the power. In this way Tehran would gain the support of both sides on one hand, and avoid the repercussions of any possible collapse of the Syrian regime on the other.
The Supreme Leader is the real measure of the Iranian stance
Even if we were to ignore all that has previously been mentioned in the interpretation of the Iranian stance, it would have been possible for us to understand these as a serious shift in the country’s policies if it wasn’t for a key factor represented by the position of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei – the real and de facto ruler of the country and the primary authority over crucial issues related to foreign policy – has not backed down from his position and has not eased or amended his rhetoric toward the Syrian situation, whether through a diagnosis of the situation that considers the protesters to be “tools in the hands of America and Israel”, and the Syrian revolution to be a “conspiracy against the regime because it is within the axis of resistance”.
Even those who bet on a shift in the position of the Supreme Leader in the last few months, starting with Hizbullah’s television channel, Al-Manar, that hosted Ahmadinejad when he announced his new position, which was seen as a prelude to changing Hizbullah’s secretary general Hasan Nasrallah’s stance, it was found later that their analysis was inaccurate, evident through Nasrallah’s latest statements on 11/11/2011 when he said that betting on the fall of the Assad regime will not succeed and that what is happening is only an American conspiracy against Syria (the same stance as that of the Supreme Leader).
We can only conclude from a reading of the current Iranian stance, is that it is nothing more than a calculated and deliberate maneuver, in the context of role distribution inside the Iranian regime between official institutions (the presidency, parliament and councils) and the real and de facto ruler of Iran, or the Supreme Leader and his group of Revolutionary Guards. The Iranian stance seems to be as if, on one side, an attempt to explore the possible outcomes of the next stage. Furthermore, any talk about this position being an actual result of internal differences within Iranian institutions on one side, or between the president and the Supreme Leader of the Revolution on the other, which may constitute an abandonment of Assad and his regime, is merely inaccurate and an unfortunate analysis! This is for several reasons:
- First: The final decision on this or other issues rests solely with the Supreme Leader even if that does not negate the existence of disagreement among the pillars of power in Iran.
- Second: Foreign Minister Salehi directly reports to the Supreme Leader and not to the president, bearing in mind the role of the Supreme Leader in formulating Iranian foreign policies; it is not possible for Salehi to change his rhetoric without prior directives, and that confirms the hypothesis of the distribution of roles.
- Third: Tehran continues in practice to support the Assad regime on several levels, politically, economically and militarily, and against the demonstrators; so how can those, who supports the regime to the very end, abandon it?
It is true that one of the fundamentals of Iranian policy is that Tehran puts its national interest before any other interest no matter how important it is. The Iran-Contra affair is not an exceptional example with concern to this matter and the “Ofer” scandal regarding collaboration with Israel which was exposed in mid-2011, will not be the last. But what is also true is that Tehran does not abandon its allies unless through a deal whereby its interests with them are guaranteed, and perhaps the secret “grand bargain” with the United States in 2003 is a clear indicator to understanding this pattern of Iranian behaviour.
Although the French newspaper Le Figaro recently reported that the Americans and Iranians had held two meetings at the end of August and the beginning of September 2011 through “backdoor diplomacy” to discuss the Syrian crisis, yet there is nothing to indicate so far that any particular deal was or is in the process of being made between Tehran and other nations concerning the Syrian file.
In general, based on the Iranian experience and analysis of the above data, which shows a shift in rhetoric and a practical support for Assad, we can conclude that the purpose of the Iranian tactics is to assist the Syrian regime all the way to the end, taking into consideration options that will help the survival of the regime as well as alternatives that could impose themselves in case of the regime falling. This is especially relevant to some circles within the Iranian regime and Hizbullah, who see that regardless of the form of the next Syrian regime, Damascus will still need them, particularly as Syria has land occupied by Israel; that would enable Tehran to return to the Syrian arena with strength, as they see it.
Ali Hussein Bakeer
USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
Notes: Looked at as examples but not exclusively:
 -In an article published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the Israeli (of Iranian origin) researcher and political analyst Meir Javedanfar says that Khamenei would not support Assad to the end and that as soon as it becomes clear to him that Assad’s regime will fall, he will abandon him, meaning that he will not stay on his side forever. Meir also quotes the former ambassador to Lebanon Masoud Idrissi who said that Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has changed his stance toward the Assad regime and that this is an indication that Khamenei will take the same road.
– Researcher James Dorsey (RSIS) concludes from these indicators that Khamenei is preparing his regime for the post-Assad stage. Jonathan Tobin of Commentary Magazine takes it even further to say that Hizbullah and Iran are now convinced of the end of the Syrian regime.
– In an article published in the Foreign Policy magazine on 11/09/2011 under the title “Iran supports Assad (but not at any cost)”, Iranian political analyst Mohammad Ataie sees that there is division within Iran, whereas Iranian analyst Farhad Alavi, in an article published online in Rooz on 09/12/2011 entitled “Playing with Khamenei in Syria’s Field”, sees the shift in the Iranian rhetoric as the result of a conflict between the president and the Supreme Leader, and that the president has decided to move the conflict outside via the Syrian situation.
 British newspaper The Telegraph reported in its 11/14/2011 edition that Iranian officials met last month with a number of Syrian opposition members it dubbed “moderates” led by Haitham Al-Manna and a number of leaders of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria, and said that Tehran used Haitham Al-Manna in order to prepare a conference for the opposition, but its efforts were not successful.
 A secret Iranian document sent to the United States via the Swiss embassy in Tehran, through Ambassador Tim Goldman, and with the Supreme Leader’s consent, in 2003, included a secret Iranian proposal to accomplish a “grand bargain” in which Tehran would recognize Israel, end the support of armed movements, and restore relations with Washington, in return for an end to America’s hostile approach, a pledge by the latter not to attack Iran, the lifting of all economic sanctions, the return of funds that were frozen during the Shah’s time, and a number of other demands among them, most importantly: the recognition of the legitimacy of Iran’s interests in the region as a legitimate regional power. The deal was rejected by the U.S. administration hawks at that time, who were in a position of strength after occupying Iraq. For more details about the document, you can refer to our report entitled “Special: The full story of the secret Iranian proposal in 2003 – Part 2”, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah, 03/07/2007, available at the following link: http://alibakeer.maktoobblog.com/237089
This analysis was first published in December 28, 2011 by Doha Institute.