June 22, 2012
Number 06/12 #06
As readers are probably aware, the third round of “P5+1” talks with Iran over its nuclear program took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week in Moscow and ended not only with no sign of an agreement, but without any clear plans for further high-level talks. This Update deals with what happened in Moscow and the implications of the talks’ failure.
First up, Barak Ravid of Haaretz receives some insights into the exact nature of the discussions from an anonyomous participating diplomat. He says that the Western states attempted to correct an Iranian belief that they were interested in a deal at any cost, while the Iranians were vague and unhelpful in discussing plans to limit their enrichment of uranium to 20% – which is, in terms of technical difficulty, almost bomb grade – and refused to discuss the fate of the secretly-built underground Fordo enrichment complex at all. It’s also clear that the Iranians tried hard to find and exploit differences between the negotiators from the P5+1 states (US, Russia, UK, France, China and Germany) and were surprised that these efforts failed, even with the Chinese and Russians. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Iranian-born Israeli Iran expert Meir Javedanfar also discusses the breakdown of talks as partly the product of the Iranian strategy of hoping to create and exploit divisions among the P5+1 – and also marking time until the US Presidential election. He sees the P5+1 as hoping additional sanctions will move Iran, but says its position as “rock-solid” in resisting Iran attempts to divide it because the US is perceived as having reached out to Iran, while Iran is being perceived as reciprocating with intransigence even by Russia and China. Javendefar makes a strong case that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has over-played his hand and is going to need to come to the table with a genuine offer soon or the coalition against Iran will only widen and solidify further. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israel strategic analyst Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall has a detailed look at the Iranian role – military, political and ideological – in the Syrian civil war. He summarises the extensive evidence for the involvement of both the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah in helping the Assad regime attempt to suppress the insurgency, as well as new details, such as the extent to which the Shabiha – the Syrian para-military thought to be responsible for the worst atrocities against civilians – is directly modelled on Iran’s Basiji militia. Equally valuable is Segall’s discussion of the way the Iranians perceive the Syrian uprising as part of their competition with the Saudis and Israel. This is the best article we have seen on Iran’s role in Syria, and to read it all, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- The Washington Post has a good editorial on how the US Administration should handle the talks’ unsurprising failure. Plus, bipartisan urgings in the US Congress for the US to signal a “credible military threat” to Iran.
- Veteran American Middle East mediator Dennis Ross urges placing a take-or-leave-it deal before the Iranians addressing their claim to have a “right” to a civilian nuclear program.
- A report from Iran that the sanctions appear effective – and Iranians primarily blame their government for them.
- Experts testify in the US that Iran can turn their low-enriched uranium into a nuclear bomb core in four months. Plus, new revelations about the extent of the clean-up of the alleged Iranian bomb-component testing site at Parchin.
- An interesting piece on Iranian attempts to woo Brazil.
- Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak explains Israel’s perspective on what the international community should do now on Iran in an interview. In addition, Israeli Vice PM Shaul Mofaz calls for both stepped up sanctions and preparing “other options.” But Israeli officials make it clear no military action is in the offing in the near future.
- Three new pieces on the Sinai problem for Israel – from noted security columnist Ron Ben Yishai, strategic expert Michael Herzog, and journalist Yaakov Lappin.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Allon Lee’s latest media week column.
- Ahron Shapiro on new revelations from 1967 Israeli cabinet documents concerning Israeli willingness to trade the territories captured in the Six Day War for peace.
Iranian stalling tactics, veiled threats by the six powers and odd PowerPoint presentations, but nary a word about Israel in the third round of nuclear talks with Iran.
Iranian stalling tactics, veiled threats from the six powers, an odd PowerPoint presentation about religious rulings by Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, and nary a word about Israel: That is some of what happened behind closed doors at Moscow’s Golden Ring Hotel, where a third round of nuclear talks with Iran took place this week.
The intensive talks held in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday between Iran and the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – ended in failure. The six powers were unable to bridge their major gaps with Iran.
A Western diplomat who asked to remain anonymous in light of the sensitivity of the talks said that one major obstacle revealed by the Moscow talks relates to the underground facility for uranium enrichment in Fordo, near the city of Qum.
According to the diplomat, the Iranians responded only in a broad, vague fashion to demands that it limit its enrichment of uranium to a level of 20 percent and move such uranium outside the country, and they refused to discuss the Fordo plant at all. The Iranians claimed that Fordo is not a military facility, so it should not be included in the talks.
“We learned that Fordo is a taboo subject for the Iranians, and that it is the flagship of their nuclear project,” the diplomat said.
After ending the second round of talks in Baghdad with the feeling that the six powers were desperate to forge an agreement, the Iranian delegates arrived in Moscow feeling confident. But Western diplomats, who realized that expectations had been raised too high in Baghdad, came to Moscow skeptical and cautious. The message they broadcast was that the powers want an agreement, but not at any price.
The Western diplomat said that several times during the Moscow talks, Western representatives conveyed veiled threats and warnings to the Iranian delegation. The message was that “we are not under pressure, and we prefer no deal to a bad deal.”
Western delegates, he added, told the Iranians that “packing our bags and going home won’t be a problem. That won’t cause anything bad to happen to us. But if you are the ones to pack your bags and leave, you’ll have a lot to lose.”
The six powers presented tough terms to the Iranians, and they rejected Iran’s request to conduct a fourth round of talks with higher-level representatives. “Another round of talks like this one will not lead to results, so we told the Iranians that there’s no point in holding them,” the Western diplomat said.
They did agree to arrange a meeting of jurists and nuclear experts to conduct a detailed review of the positions presented by both sides during the Moscow discussions. But the powers made it clear to the Iranians that they “want concrete actions, not just talks.”
The Iranians were surprised that delegates from the six powers managed to maintain a united front throughout the discussions. The Iranians had hoped to bring the Chinese and Russian delegates into their corner. But during separate meetings with the Russian and Chinese diplomats, the Iranians heard the same message that was relayed consistently in the meetings with representatives from all six countries.
Throughout the Moscow negotiations, Saeed Jalili, head of the Iranian delegation, tried to carry out delaying tactics and evasive maneuvers. One odd moment occurred on the second day of the discussions, when the Iranians announced that they were willing to discuss an initiative broached by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin regarding the nuclear dispute.
Delegates from the six powers began passing notes among themselves in an effort to ascertain what Putin’s initiative actually said. Some of the diplomats in the conference room sent text messages to colleagues outside, asking that they conduct Google searches to see whether Putin had sponsored an initiative they didn’t know about.
After a few minutes of searches, it became clear that the initiative in question was actually an article published by Putin four months ago, during his presidential campaign. Putin stated in the article that Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium under certain restrictions, to be monitored and enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agitated Russian delegation hastily explained that this article was not a formal diplomatic initiative and bore no relevance to the diplomatic negotiations then underway.
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While Obama reaches out to Iran, Khamenei seems to be trying, and failing, to split the international community
“Comment is Free”, guardian.co.uk, Thursday 21 June 2012 11.53 BST
Judging by the latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Moscow, neither side seems to be in a hurry to back down and compromise. Instead, both prefer to adopt a wait-and-see approach in the hope that future developments will force the other side to back down.
The P5+1 seems to be counting on the sanctions, especially those scheduled to go into force on 1 July. On that day, the EU will stop its purchases of oil from Iran, meaning Iran will lose 20% of its total export market.
This could lead to further falls in the value of Iran’s currency. It could also lead to a major spike in gold and commodity prices (even construction materials) in Iran as they have proven to be a safe haven for those who don’t want to see the value of their savings eroded.
The P5+1 is most probably hoping that after the shock of 1 July the Iranian regime will feel weakened and be compelled to compromise. This is a logical possibility. There are also the events in Syria where Assad’s regime is turning into a financial and diplomatic pit which Iran is trying to fill with money and military assistance. This is creating a strain on Khamenei’s regime, much to the west’s advantage.
Meanwhile Khamenei seems to be holding out for an opportunity to create a split in the international community, especially the P5+1 group. For that he has the upcoming US presidential elections this November to look forward to, especially the possibility of a Republican victory.
Iranian dictators love the Republican party. The shah certainly did. According to Professor Abbas Milani’s biography, the shah wanted the Republicans to occupy the White House so badly that he made illegal contributions to the Nixon presidential campaign in 1960 and 1968.
The Shah knew that as long as the Republicans were in power they would ignore lack of democracy and human rights, and instead focus on boosting the Shah’s military apparatus – in line with his ambitions. Khamenei also prefers the GOP. Its labelling of Iran as part of the “axis of evil”, threats of regime change and refusal to hold negotiations with Iran without preconditions put the Russians and the Chinese on Iran’s side. It also boosted the regime’s standing at home and in the region.
Obama’s offer to hold negotiations unconditionally while recognising the regime was a serious effort to reach out to Iran, and this has been terrible for Khamenei. As his chief negotiator saw in Moscow, when it comes to showing a united P5+1 front against Iran at the talks, the Russians and the Chinese are no longer in Iran’s camp, because they believe that Obama is interested in a deal and he has tried his best, but Khamenei has not.
That is why P5+1 is rock solid and united in its negotiating position. The Senate and Congress, Democrats and Republicans who usually have little to agree on, are united against Iran as well. So is the EU, despite challenges and differences inside the community.
This is why it would be logical for Khamenei to wait and pray that Obama loses the US election and is replaced with Romney. Romney’s threats of war and his unlikely support for talks could drive the Chinese and Russians away from the P5+1 and towards Iran while reducing support for sanctions.
No one knows when the next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1’s chief negotiators will be. For now, both sides have agreed to participate in a lower-level technical meeting which is scheduled to for 3 July. After that both sides will decide whether another meeting between the chief negotiators will take place.
From now until the next round both sides will try to use the time to boost their leverage. Until then, Iran’s supreme leader would do well to remember that when it comes to negotiations, the perception in the international community is that Obama is far more interested in diplomacy than he.
In politics, perception is extremely powerful in forming opinions. The longer Khamenei waits without showing some kind of overture, the stronger the international public opinion – including that of a number of Muslim countries – against his regime’s nuclear programme will become.
It’s time Iran’s supreme leader realised that the anti-nuclear Iran camp is far wider than western countries. As the P5+1’s unity shows, it has reached Moscow and Beijing. Instead of playing the victim, Khamenei should ask himself why.
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran.
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Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, June 20, 2012
No. 589 May-June 2012
- Amid the intensifying crisis in Syria, which in recent weeks has seen massacres of the civilian population in various parts of the country, Iranian military, propaganda, and economic assistance keeps flowing in, and its aim is help President Bashar al-Assad survive. Iran views the confrontation in Syria as critical battle ground with the west regarding the reshaping of the Middle East and to its own role in the region as a key and vital and influential player.
- At present Hizballah weapons are serving—under Iran’s command—as part of Assad’s apparatus of violent repression. Esmail Ghani, deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, is the most senior Iranian military official so far to have revealed its activity in Syria. In an interview to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), he acknowledged that elements of the IRGC-QF’s Qods Force have been involved in Syrian events.
- This marked the first time a senior IRGC-QF commander had confirmed reports by Syrian opposition elements and Western sources about active involvement of elite units of the IRGC-QF, together with the Syrian army, in violent repression of the protest. The opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army, sometimes presents testimonies of direct Iranian involvement in the fighting and publishes, as part of its online information campaign, interrogations of Iranian prisoners and Hizballah men along with documentation such as confiscated passports and identity papers. The Iranians and the Hizballah men have been captured in main centers of fighting including Homs. In their confessions they admit that they belong to the IRGC-QF and were sent to put down the disturbances in Syria.
- The Iranian aid to the repression of the Syrian uprising, which has included consultation as well as guidance in the “field,” began shortly after the protest first erupted. This aid was already reported by Iranian opposition elements, who claimed that the repression in Syria was being carried out by a Syrian contingent of the IRGC-QF that had been operating in the country, and had been responsible over time for military, intelligence, and logistical assistance to Hizballah in Lebanon.
- In a late-May daily press briefing U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland pointed to Iran’s involvement in the Houla massacre, linking the Qods Force to the incident and implicitly to other incidents in Syria as well. She noted the great similarity in structure and operational methods between the Shabiha forces that stood, according to various testimonies, behind the massacre and the Basij, the volunteer arm of the IRGC-QF.
Amid the intensifying crisis in Syria, which in recent weeks has seen massacres of the civilian population in various parts of the country, Iranian military, propaganda, and economic assistance keeps flowing in, and its aim is help President Bashar al-Assad survive. Iran aided Assad in withstanding the waves of protest as soon as they erupted, and it is now backing him and advising him on how to overcome an existential crisis that put to test the two countries’ strategic alliance.
Iran, which has invested great military, economic, and political resources in Syria—a main pillar of the anti-Israeli “resistance camp” and the gateway to aiding Hizballah—now views Syria, amid the rapid changes in the Middle East, as key battleground to confront the West. How this conflict unfolds will determine the new landscape that is being shaped in the region.
Syria as Battlefield
The present state of affairs is highly reminiscent of what transpired after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Iran backed Hizballah while Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and Western states, supported Lebanese freedom forces. The eventual outcome was Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon at the height of President Bush’s democratization campaign after the overthrow of Saddam and the Iraqi elections of January 2005. Iran then viewed Lebanon as the first line of confrontation with the West, which was trying, unsuccessfully to impose a rapid democratization there, too, and disarm Hizballah. At present Hizballah weapons are serving—under Iran’s command—as part of Assad’s apparatus of violent repression.
Iran, then, keeps acting by the same logic. It views the confrontation in Syria as critical to the reshaping of the Middle East and to its own role in the region as the party that leads and will continue to lead—even if Assad ultimately falls—the resistance to the Western presence and to Israel’s continued existence.
Iran is well aware that its backing for Assad will further widen the rift, which in any case is unbridgeable, between it and the Sunni Gulf States with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, and also between it and Turkey now that the brief golden age between these two countries, in the aftermath of the Marmara flotilla to Gaza, has ended.
On the Syrian issue Iran is also increasingly coordinating with Russia—whose role constitutes a brake on international intervention in the matter. On 7 June, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discussed Syria with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference in Shanghai.
During the first year of the Syrian crisis, Iran maintained a low public profile about its aid to Damascus. But in recent weeks as the conflict has intensified, senior figures in Iran’s political-religious-military leadership have acknowledged that Iran is militarily involved in Syria through the Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Reports on this involvement and its characteristics by Syrian opposition elements and Western sources are indeed proliferating.
Meanwhile Iran is building up its rationale for this involvement—the main point being that since according to Iran’s perception regional states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with help from the United States, Europe, and Israel, are assisting the Syrian rebels and allowing terrorists to enter the country, Iran has no choice but to help its longstanding ally against the external threats. At the same time, Iran consistently claims that Syria is now paying a heavy price for being “the golden link in the chain of the anti-Israeli resistance camp,” and that the West is promoting a false front of popular protest that is actually aimed at undermining Assad’s bold stance against Israel and precipitating his downfall.
In parallel with the internal escalation in Syria and the political and military resources Iran has to invest there, Iran is conducting the nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) while using familiar foot-dragging tactics. The aim is to buy more precious time for the ongoing development of its nuclear program and arrive at the bomb.
For Iran, that will mean completing the strategic endeavor of entrenching its status as a rising Middle Eastern power while gradually pushing the West out of the region. Iran believes that a Shiite nuclear bomb will afford it immunity and enable it to continue its subversive activity in the region. Hence Iran does not fear the medium- and long-term implications of sustaining its support for Syria in the disintegrating Arab arena, as the Middle East (including Sunnis) assumes a strong Islamic coloration and the West loses its grip on the region.
The IRCG-QF’s Role in Syria
Esmail Ghani, deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, is the most senior Iranian military official so far to have revealed its activity in Syria. In an interview to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), he acknowledged that elements of the IRGC-QF’s Qods Force have been involved in Syrian events. Ghani said this “is aimed at preventing a massacre of people…. Before we came to Syria, there was a large massacre of the citizens by the opposition, but with a physical and nonphysical presence of Iran, a further massacre in Syria was prevented.” Although this interview was removed from the ISNA’s website immediately after it was published, it was posted at length on other Iranian sites.
This marked the first time a senior IRGC-QF commander had confirmed reports by Syrian opposition elements (particularly the Free Syrian Army) and Western sources about active involvement of elite units of the IRGC-QF (which operates outside of Iran in special subversion and terror missions), together with the Syrian army, in violent repression of the protest.1 Ghani has been designated by the U.S. Treasury for his role in smuggling arms to African states, Syria, and Hizballah. As deputy IRGC-QF commander, he has financial oversight of Qods Force weapons shipments.1
The opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army, sometimes presents testimonies of direct Iranian involvement in the fighting and publishes, as part of its online information campaign, interrogations of Iranian prisoners and Hizballah men3 along with documentation such as confiscated passports and identity papers.4,5 The Iranians and the Hizballah men have been captured in main centers of fighting including Homs. In their confessions they admit that they belong to the IRGC-QF,6 and were sent to put down the disturbances in Syria, receiving instructions from Syrian intelligence.7 The Syrian opposition also displays weapons that, it claims, originated in Iran, as well as CDs with pictures of Nasrallah.8
In addition, the Free Syrian Army has disclosed buggings of Hizballah’s communications network in the Albiadha neighborhood of Homs; in them one hears coordinated planning of operations in the city.9 The Syrian opposition has also revealed, it claims, a fabricated rocket-propelling charge for an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that was fraudulently sold by Hizballah to the opposition, and that causes whoever tries to fire the RPG to be killed by the rocket’s explosion.10
The Iranian aid to the repression of the Syrian uprising, which has included consultation as well as guidance in the “field,” began shortly after the protest first erupted. This aid was already reported by Iranian opposition elements,11 who claimed that the repression in Syria was being carried out by a Syrian contingent of the IRGC-QF that had been operating in the country, and had been responsible over time for military, intelligence, and logistical assistance to Hizballah in Lebanon. With the outbreak of protest in Syria, the IRGC-QF dispatched special emissaries, commanders of the Basij (volunteer forces of the IRGC-QF that also put down the uprising in Iran), to Damascus to help Assad.12 Other reports claimed Iran had provided Syria with logistical equipment, sniper rifles of its own make, and advanced Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) devices for disrupting Internet activity, which allow the identification of activists who converse by phone or use the social networks on the Internet.13
The Shabiha: Emulating the Basij
In line with Ghani’s words, in a late-May daily press briefing U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland pointed to Iran’s involvement in the Houla massacre, linking the Qods Force to the incident and implicitly to other incidents in Syria as well. She noted the great similarity in structure and operational methods between the Shabiha forces that stood, according to various testimonies, behind the massacre and the Basij, the volunteer arm of the IRGC-QF. The Basij, who are recruited from among the young, were one of the main elements behind the repression of the protest that erupted after Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. According to Nuland:
Well, it’s Assad and his regime who created this Shabiha.… It very much models the Iranian Basiji model, where they hire young guys to indiscriminately wreak vengeance and do this kind of hand-to-hand violence…again, the Iranians have clearly provided support and training and advice to the Syrian army, but this Shabiha thug force mirrors the same force that the Iranians used. The Basiji and the Shabiha are the same type of thing, and clearly reflects the tactics and the techniques that the Iranians used for their own suppression of civil rights….We just find it interesting that it was on this very weekend that the deputy head of the Qods Force decided to take credit for the advice that they’re giving to Syria.14
Syria and “Palestine” in Iran’s National Security doctrine
Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, referred to Iran’s ideological and security motives for supporting the Syrian regime. While he indicated that this support is limited to the “ideological and moral level,” his statements implied that the backing is actually much more extensive, and that both its ideological and security motives run very deep and indeed are bound up with Iran’s nature as an Islamic state.
Firouzabadi stressed that “Iran’s support for the Syrian people is linked to Islam and to the directives of Imam Khomeini.” The support for Palestine is also an aspect of the Imam’s defense-security ideology and of Islam itself. “According to this far-reaching concept, Allah ordered us not to allow infidels to rule over Muslims…. One of our duties is to defend the Muslims…. Syria is the only country that stands firm against Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians.” Firouzabadi added that “this resolute stance jibes with the Koranic imperative, and therefore we support [Syria] and any actor that resists Israel”. According to Firouzabadi, “We are not involved in Syria…we are not enemies of the Syrian people…. Syria is a friendly country that is left standing at the front line of resistance to Israel and we provide it with moral and ideological support.” The Armed Forces chief said Iran was involved in “the positive decisions” that the Syrian government and President Assad have been making for the Syrian people, is interested in restoring Syria’s security, and will help protect and stabilize the country.15
Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of the IRGC-QF’s Basij Organization, made statements in a similar spirit. In an interview to Hizballah’s Al-Manar satellite TV station, he said that as long as Syria stands firm against Israel, Iran’s support for it will be assured and nonnegotiable. As for the geostrategic situation in the region, Naqdi said that in the wake of U.S. forces’ departure from Iraq and the collapse of their line of defense for Israel there, the United States was trying to firm up a new line of defense for Israel (the “Jerusalem-occupying regime”)—this time in Syria—against the growing threat from the east. And he asserted that, thanks to the brave resistance of the Syrian people, this hasty activity would likely lead to “a further failure for imperialism.”16
In a speech at a conference on “Stable Security” held at the initiative of the IRGC-QF’s Imam Hossein University, IRGC-QF lieutenant commander Hussein Salami also addressed the region’s geostrategic situation in light of the “Islamic Awakening” (Iranian term for the Arab Spring). He called the present moment “the most complex, difficult, and strange time in the history of Islam and Iran” and said the rapid geopolitical developments, particularly in the Muslim states, were uprooting the geopolitical order created by the Western powers. In his view these developments, which stemmed from an Islamic ideology, were gradually eroding the Western powers’ influence in favor of a new, Islamic, revolutionary geopolitical reality. In this emerging reality “the Zionist regime, which is the source of the threat to the region’s security, is losing the geopolitical props of its regional power”. He underscored that the United States was losing its infrastructure and strongholds in the region, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that Iran sought to maximally exploit the improvement in its own geopolitical situation by influencing the direction of events.17
Overall, the statements of senior IRGC-QF and Armed Forces officials and of the political leadership indicate that the “battle for Syria” has a special importance for Iran. For one thing, Syria is a strategic and loyal ally; it has not signed a peace treaty with Israel, makes a decisive contribution to entrenching Hizballah in Lebanon, and is home to Islamic and secular Palestinian organizations that oppose an agreement with Israel. But Iran now also regards Syria as the front line in the battle to reshape the Middle East, and as the main arena of Iran’s struggle (Bahrain being an additional one) with the West (including Turkey) and the “moderate” Sunni Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia. It is Syria’s centrality to the general Iranian strategy of seeking influence and regional (and international) hegemonic status that explains the extent of Iran’s assistance to the Syrian regime in many areas and Iran’s desire for its continued survival.
“The Ashes of the Syrian Flame Will Bury Israel”
Along with the military and logistical aid to Syria, senior Iranian officials continue to publicly express unstinting support for it. They also condemn the Gulf States, the West, and Israel for their “scheme” to depose Assad, emphasize that harming Syria means crossing a red line from Iran’s standpoint, and warn that the shock waves from Syria will affect the whole region and especially Israel:
- Reelected Majlis speaker Ali Larijani: “It seems that the U.S. and the West are seeking to prepare the ground for a new crisis [in Syria]…. Possibly, U.S. military officials are suffering a misunderstanding over themselves and over regional issues because Syria’s specifications are no way similar to those of Libya…. Benghaziation of Syria will spread into Palestine [Israel] and the ashes of such flame will definitely bury the Zionist regime.… U.S. officials should be aware of this dangerous game…. Certain reactionaries in the region [i.e., the Gulf States] take pride in the fact that they have used money and weapons to destroy and incite a civil war in Syria.18 During a meeting with Syria-based Ahmad Jibril, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC): “An extensive plot is being orchestrated by global powers, conspiring to bring down independent states like Syria and remove any resistance to the Zionist regime.”19
- Hardliner Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, member of the Assembly of Experts’ presiding board: “As long as the Islamic Republic [of Iran] is standing by Syria, [its] government…will not collapse…. recent elections and other reformist measures in Syria have all been [taken] under the Islamic Republic’s encouragement…. the reason why Iran supports Syria is that the West is taking revenge on the country for the Islamic Awakenings, the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and…Hezbollah…. Western imperialism is dispatching weaponry to the Syrian opposition, which is disgraceful, and of course the Islamic Republic will not allow their agendas to bear fruit.”20
- A Foreign Ministry spokesman during a weekly press conference: “The events in Syria can potentially affect the security of the entire region. The wave of Islamic awakening has led to a break in [Arab] dependence on the U.S. and thus threatens the Zionist regime’s interests. Those who are dissatisfied with this (inevitable) [if this is the author’s interpolation rather than something that’s parenthesized in the original, it should be in square brackets instead of parentheses] process stir up instability and tension in Syria, in order to provide the Zionist regime with an escape route.”21
- Iranian UN ambassador Mohammad Khazaei: He “said that the Syrian conflict could engulf the whole region and result in further instability, calling for an immediate end to foreign supplying of arms and money to opposition groups.”22
- Deputy foreign minister for Africa-Arab affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: He “said that some participants of the [Friends of Syria] meeting [in Turkey] support the terrorists [and] are to be blamed for the tragic events in Syria. ‘Instead of supporting the terrorists in Syria, they should support…Bashar al-Assad’s reform plan and the efforts by UN-Arab League joint envoy in Syria, Kofi Annan….’”23
Applying the Kosovo Model to Syria
Iran is also using the written and electronic state – run media to air its positions on the Syrian crisis. Numerous editorials set forth the arguments articulated by the Iranian spokesmen; mordant cartoons convey the propagandistic messages almost without need of a text (see the Appendix). The articles and reports reveal the growing tension in Iranian-Saudi relations and the struggle between, on the one hand, Iran’s Arabic and English satellite channels (Al-Alam and Press TV respectively) and, on the other, the Arab satellite channels, primarily Al Arabiya but also Qatar’s Al Jazeera.
An editorial that was carried by several news agencies and newspapers claimed that the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from European countries was a rash step revealing Europe’s irrational response to the situation, and creating an obstacle in UN envoy Annan’s path. The article further alleged that the massacres in the Al-Hawlah area of Homs were perpetrated by Al-Qaeda and other Salafi and terror groups, and derided Al Arabiya as “the propaganda voice of Saudi Arabia” for broadcasting an interview with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who blamed Al-Hawlah on the Syrian regime. The showing of this interview, the editorial averred, was a further sign that states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel aim to play a key role on Syrian soil, paving the way for the entry of terror groups with the goal of bringing about Assad’s ouster.24
The semiofficial Fars news agency published an interview with Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini, a senior Iranian expert on Middle Eastern affairs, who decried “the Western and Arab scheme to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime in an “attempt to carry out a ‘Kosovo for the Arabs’ in Syria.” He said this was a malevolent plan aimed at fomenting a religious, interracial, ethnic, and military war against Syria. Armed groups in Syria, al-Hosseini declared, that “do not shrink from any means and even shoot children and infants,” would “try to add to the tumult in Syria by attacking Palestinian refugee camps or the tombs of prophecy [referring to sacred Shia sites in Syria such as the tomb of Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad] or even churches.” He further asserted that any attempt at military intervention in Syria would bring about “an explosion in the whole region of the Arab and Islamic east.” In such a scenario the peoples of the region would not sit quiet but intervene in full force, and this would “lead to the eradication of the main plotter in the region, Israel.”25
Iran also intends to produce a documentary film about the Syrian crisis called al Fitna al Sham (The Civil War in Syria/Damascus). The movie, which has been approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and shot in Syria, and will also be shot in Turkey and France, will probably visually substantiate the Iran-Syrian propaganda line, which apparently flows from Iranian directives following talks with the Syrian regime.26
Before the latest escalation and massacres, Iranian spokesmen had also been declaring that “the worst is already behind us” and that Syria was on the way to surviving the crisis; this was perhaps an attempt at encouraging Assad. Recently the same notion was reiterated by Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Reza’I, who said Syria had now passed the “danger point” but would still eventually have to implement reforms.27 Other Iranian spokesmen have stated that Syrian reforms are needed and that the president has indeed launched them, but the West and “certain countries” (mainly Saudi Arabia) are not interested in their success.
Saudi Arabia an “Enemy” of Iran
The Saudi, along with Western and Turkish, backing for the Syrian rebels has increased the tension and further widened the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That tension reached a new peak over Saudi plans to “annex” Bahrain and thereby shield it from the lengthening Iranian shadow and unrelenting Shia protest, which among other things has been encouraged and abetted by Iran.
In May the popular website Stop Iran posted a poll in which surfers were asked to define Saudi Arabia as a “friend,” “rival,” or “enemy” of Iran. Out of about twenty-three thousand voters, over 72 percent saw Saudi Arabia as an enemy of Iran, 21 percent as a rival, and 6 percent as a friend.28
An editorial that the site published under a title that accurately reflects the poll, “Saudi Arabia Is an Enemy of Iran,” notes that aside from historical factors, the two states’ relations are fraught with deep disagreements on many regional issues that “have created a high wall of distrust between [them].” Surveying the main landmarks in the deterioration of these relations since the Islamic Revolution, the editorial specifies Bahrain’s separation from Iran during the Shah’s reign as the starting point. It says the relations have long gone beyond mere rivalry and reached a level of confrontation, noting, for example, Saudi Arabia’s joining of the efforts to boycott Iranian oil.
The editorial also asserts that the two states’ lack of common interests further aggravates their disputes. In this context it emphasizes that, whereas in the case of Iran and Turkey, these two states’ common (economic and political) interests prevent a conflict from emerging over their dispute regarding Syria, in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia the story is completely different and the situation between them is one where the only possible “balance” is a victory of one over the other. The article also notes the profound religious rift between Shiite Iran and Wahabi Saudi Arabia, which cannot be attributed to foreign involvement. It predicts that Iranian-Saudi relations will only continue to worsen since the regional Islamic trend works to the detriment of Saudi Arabia, whose current role far exceeds it real, logical weight, which stands to be balanced in the future by Egypt’s and Iraq’s return to the regional equation.
The editorial sums up by saying Riyadh is clearly interested in Assad’s downfall—and not because it longs for Syrian democracy! Instead, the Saudis want Assad’s ouster to compensate for the imbalance vis-à-vis Iran that was created by Mubarak’s fall, and because in any case, as long as the current Middle Eastern upheaval continues, the relations between Tehran and Riyadh will also remain turbulent until one of them has to raise the white flag. 29
Iran will continue to support Assad and his regime. Syria’s significance for Iran goes well beyond the two states’ political ties as part of their strategic alliance. Despite—indeed, mainly because of—the international and Arab pressure on Damascus, Iran is continuing to back Syria and no longer bothers to conceal its military assistance to the Syrian security branches that are violently repressing the protest. Iran is also projecting an atmosphere of relations-as-usual with Syria. Visits, and economic and cultural activity, are ongoing and Ahmadinejad has indeed invited his counterpart Assad to the summit conference of nonaligned states planned for the end of August in Tehran. It will be interesting to see if Assad leaves Syria to participate, assuming he survives until then.30
The confrontation over Syria with the West and the “moderate” Arab states gives Iran a good opportunity—even if Assad ultimately falls—to convey the message that, when it comes to the emerging new order in the Middle East, it is a central player that cannot be ignored and has the power to influence the process and pace of events.
Here, by publicly acknowledging that the IRGC-QF is active on Syrian soil, Iran signals that it has the ability to sustain symmetry: if the West provides military assistance to the opposition, then Iran provides it to the regime. Iran is also trying to make such symmetry part of its nuclear talks with the West. It seeks to infuse broader contents into these talks that concern the region’s security, energy sources, as well as Iran’s key role in both those regards. From time to time Iran raises the issue of the Strait of Hormuz and its capacity to strike every American base in the Middle East, along with, of course, the entirety of Israeli territory (in part by assisting Hizballah).
Syria, like Lebanon and “Palestine,” is a main component of Iran’s security doctrine, the Islamic Republic’s first line of defense. The assistance to Syria manifests that outlook, part of which involves distancing threats from the homeland and waging the struggle with Israel and the West in regions far from Iran, while building a response capability against Israel in these same regions for whenever the moment of truth arrives.
Iran emphasizes that Syria has stood for years at the front line of the resistance to Israel, is now paying the price for this, and hence should be helped in this struggle. In actuality, Israel (and hatred of the West) remains, even in the new reality—or Islamic Awakening as Iran sees it—the only common denominator that Shia, Persian Iran has with the Sunni Arab states.
In dealing with the crisis on Syrian soil (as with the crisis in Lebanon after the Hariri assassination), Iran is making clear that it does not shrink from confronting broad-based international moves even if this entails considerable conflict with the West and the moderate Arab states. This, for Iran, is another opportunity to demonstrate its growing power and ability to affect regional processes that are “generational.” Iran’s rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb, let alone its reaching that goal, while the nuclear talks continue in different modalities will enable it to act freely—and perhaps even more aggressively—in pursuing its vision of a Middle East that is subject to its hegemonic ideological-religious, economic, and political sway on the ruins of Pax Americana.