Chemical weapons use in Syria: An obstacle to Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected on a moderate foreign policy platform which promised, among other things, to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, thereby weakening the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear program. The Bashar al-Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians and a potential U.S. military response, however, has the potential to undo the Rouhani administration’s moderate foreign policy by escalating tension between Iran and the United States and its allies, specifically undermining nuclear negotiations. Rouhani may have hoped to ignore Syria while engaging in nuclear negotiations, leaving it in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who has been central to Iran’s response there, but the issue is increasingly becoming unavoidable for him in light of possible U.S. military action.

How is the Rouhani administration dealing with its Syrian dilemma? As argued in a recent collaboration between IranPolitik and the Iran Media Program, the Islamic Republic’s political currents appear relatively united in their perception of the Syrian civil war, at least publicly. They view it through a national security lens, expressing concern about both a proxy war with the United States and its allies and the rise of anti-Iran Sunni Islamist groups. The Centrists, the main political current associated with Rouhani, are no exception. Indeed, as we argued last month the Rouhani administration may be taking a strategy whereby it placates Principalists on certain foreign policy and national security issues (such as Syria) in order to limit Principalist opposition to other parts of its agenda. The administration’s official response since U.S. threats of military retaliation fits with this thesis. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is believed to have friendly ties with Western diplomats, unequivocally stated that there was no hard evidence linking the al-Assad regime to chemical attacks and that it was the Syrian opposition which had in fact been responsible. His engagement with this question on Facebook set-off an interesting debate between Iranian social-media users. Zarif also engaged in active diplomacy on this issue, discussing Iran’s position on this issue by telephone with at least 12 countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria, Azerbaijan, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium as well as United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhtar Brahimi. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan echoed Zarif’s position, adding that Iran had warned the United States eight months prior through the Swiss that Syrian rebels were smuggling Sarin nerve gas into Syria.

The Rouhani administration’s official position, via Zarif and Dehghan, on the al-Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons and a possible U.S. response is not surprising and reflects the Islamic Republic’s official position. What is surprising are alleged comments by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to the effect that the al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. As the senior elder statesmen behind the Rouhani administration, Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s comments appeared to break with both his protege Rouhani and the Islamic Republic’s official position. While the comments were quickly withdrawn by both the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), which originally published it, and by the public relations representative of the Expediency Council, which Hashemi-Rafsanjani leads, questions remain about whether the Rouhani administration may in fact desire a more conciliatory Syria policy to decrease tensions and bolster nuclear negotiations.

A more conciliatory policy would be difficult to do in the face of hardline Neo-Principalists, who are the most stalwart backers of the al-Assad regime in Iran. While Neo-Principalists have not made specific threats to the United States and their allies, they have warned of the dire consequences of such an attack. Kahyan daily newspaper chief editor Hossein Shariatmadari, a hardliner believed to represent the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated in an article entitled “The Day of Reckoning is Nigh” that a U.S. attack would create a situation in which the Muslim world could seek its long-awaited vengeance on the United States and its allies. Speaking on the same issue, IRGC Chief Commander Aziz Jafari asserted that: “The Zionists must know that a U.S. military attack on Syria will not only be unable to rescue the ignorant [Israeli] regime from the claws of the Resistance, but rather that an attack on Syria will mean the imminent destruction of Israel.” He also warned U.S. allies in the region about the consequences of a U.S. attack on Syria, saying “Some regional governments and reactionary Arab regimes who support a military attack on Syria must know that the fire of their war-mongering shall not be limited to Syria and will reach all the war-mongers and their supporters.”

Of course, there is one scenario in which a U.S. attack on Syria would not necessarily lead to significantly increased U.S.-Iran tensions. Remarking on a possible U.S. attack on Syria, Defense Minister Dehghan noted. “American armed forces currently do not have the operational capability for the use of military force and the creation of a strategic balance [in their favor] in Syria, so they are attempting to use limited attacks, to rebuild the lost spirits of the terrorists [rebels] and weaken the operational capability of the Syrian [al-Assad] armed forces, and change the operational balance in favor of Takfiri [Sunni Islamist] militants.” In his remarks Dehghan appeared to be downplaying the threat of a U.S. attack, saying that while it could serve as a moral boost to the Syrian rebels and slightly improve their position, it would not change the overall balance of power between the al-Assad regime and rebels. This could be interpreted as saying that if the U.S. attack is limited and does not shift the strategic balance between the regime and rebels in Syria, the Islamic Republic will not necessarily feel the need to increase its involvement in the civil war-torn country in response. This is not outside of the realm of possibility: Syria appears to have not retaliated against Israel’s Operation Orchard strike on its nuclear reactor in 2007 and likewise ignored an Israeli attack on one of its weapons shipment earlier this year, meaning that Iran and Syria could simply shake off a U.S. attack depending on the scale.

In a recent speech which urged caution and had less of his usual hardline bombast, Supreme Leader Khamenei warned that “The world does not have the patience for another war. The use of power in the world of the 21st century is an unacceptable action and rather than decreasing crises, shall increase them.” Maintaining that the United States would not benefit from an attack, he insisted that “there is no bright future” because the Middle East today is like a “gunpowder depot” where “if there is a spark”, there would be no telling the dimensions of the explosion that could result. Khamenei’s comments do not clearly signal that Iran would retaliate in the face of a strike. In this sense they may leave some room open for a scenario in which the United States conducts limited strikes that do not shift the balance of power inside Syria.

Rouhani today faces his first foreign policy crisis where the alleged actions of the al-Assad regime and America’s response, and not Iranian hardliners, may be what jettison his attempts at moderating how Iran approaches the United States and the West.