The Surprising Debate In Iran About Syria’s Chemical Attacks

Washington casts Tehran as the enemy, but its not paying attention to the new government’s new rhetoric

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Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

President Hassan Rouhani speaks at the parliament, in Tehran, Aug. 15, 2013.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough took to the television airwaves, warning all five networks that Iran could get a nuclear bomb if the U.S. does nothing on Syria. “We have to make sure that [the Iranians] do not misinterpret how we react to Syria, to suggest that they have greater operating space or more wiggle room as it relates to its nuclear program,” McDonough told CNN’s Candy Crowley.

As the Administration begins to make the case to Congress to authorize limited action in Syria in response to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people last month, they are making the case that the credibility of America is on the line. If other nations see that Syria can cross red lines with impunity, they too shall cross red lines and then there will be chaos, the argument goes. And they aren’t the only ones making this case. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the powerful American-Israeli lobby, will be saying much the same thing to lawmakers as they return from their summer recess: this isn’t about Syria as much as it is about protecting Israel from a nuclear holocaust.

In recent months, however, the political situation in Iran has become far more complicated, and nuanced, than the current debate in the U.S. has acknowledged, with an emerging domestic debate about how the country should respond to both the U.S. and the use of chemical weapons. Much like Washington, Tehran finds itself debating what to do with Syria.

(MORE: Can Iran, Victim of Chemical Weapons, Help Fix the Syria Crisis?)

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened several times to wipe Israel from the face of the earth and under him Iran’s nuclear program has grown enormously in defiance of international sanctions. But Iran has a new president. Hassan Rouhani won a resounding victory in June, in part due to his promises of engagement with the West.

Certainly, the tone out of Tehran has taken a 180. Last week, Rouhani tweeted a happy new year to “all Jews, especially Iranian Jews” celebrating Rosh Hashanah. And his newly appointed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is widely expected to lead the new round of nuclear talks with the West later this month, tweeted at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter that Iran “never denied” the Holocaust and “the man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.” He was presumably referring to Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani’s tone on Syria has also been different, not so much in what he’s said but in what he hasn’t. In a speech before the Assembly of Experts on Wednesday, Rouhani said if Syria is attacked by the West, “the Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duty and send food and medicine.” He notably didn’t threaten bombs or retaliation. In other speeches, Rouhani has noted that Iran has bitter experience with chemical weapons: some 20,000 Iranian soldiers were killed and upwards of 100,000 Iranians were injured by Iraqis using chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. “We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons, because the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself a victim of chemical weapons,” Rouhani said on Aug. 24, according to the ISNA News Agency.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a reformist who threw his support behind Rouhani before the elections, went so far as to blame the Assad regime for the attack, while most Iranian hardliners have blamed the Syrian opposition. The remarks were censored and he later issued a statement supporting the Syrian regime. Still, his remarks reflect the raging debate within Iran about Syria.

Not everyone in Iran has been so quick to step away from Assad, a fellow Shia whose family has been close with Tehran for decades. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Jafari said on Aug. 31 that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it should expect “reactions beyond Syria’s borders.” And the Wall Street Journal, citing U.S. officials who intercepted messages from the Iranians, reported last week that the guard, which controls Iran’s military, has ordered retaliatory attacks on the U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Beirut should the U.S. strike Syria.

No matter the President, Iran is ultimately ruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has conspicuously not weighed in on the Syria since the chemical attack. Under previous new Administrations he has let the Presidents sort out their own politics. It’s only when they cross his bigger picture that he intervenes, swinging his support between the reformist and hardline factions since taking power in 1989.

Rouhani seems to have chosen Syria as the first big internal debate of his new Administration. There is no certainty that he will succeed in moderating the country. The creation in 1992 of Ansar e Hezbollah, a militant group often blamed for the killing or intimidation of reformers and students, was a direct reaction to Rafsanjani’s reformist foreign policies. And the last reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who was in office from 1997 to 2005, struggled and failed to wrest foreign policy from Revolutionary Guard hardliners. While he succeeded in many internal reforms, Khatami did little to improve relations with the West.

But the people of Iran may be ready for a change. When I was there late last summer, it was clear that Iranians weren’t particularly happy with Tehran’s unwavering support of Syria. Most of the bazaari wanted to see the money flowing to Syria spent instead propping up Iran’s faltering currency and economy. Add to that Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which are much reviled in Iran, and Rouhani might find popular support to weaken, if not break ties with Assad. And Iran might just be the only country Assad would listen to if they asked him to step aside. It is in both Washington and Tehran’s interests to prevent a failed state in Syria, and to stop Sunni radical al Qaeda factions from taking over the country. Such cooperation has been done before: Iran was a key ally in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, an Iranian neighbor, and with the toppling of the Taliban.

And, yet, Washington still casts Iran as the ultimate enemy here, while a debate rages in the U.S. about how the country should be engaged. “You can’t know what will happen on any of these fronts—nuclear, Syria, sanctions–until you sit down and talk,” says Anthony Cordesman, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And you don’t know where they’ll be willing to give and take until you look at everything. It is long past time to talk to Iran.”

MORE: Russia and Iran Warn Against Intervention in Syria

37 comments
smehgol
smehgol

As a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, Iran accepts continuing IAEA inspection and has an internationally recognized right to develop and implement nuclear technology. Having rejected both IAEA inspection and the NPT, Israel has no such right. Yet the Jewish State has hundreds of nukes and openly threatens Iran, actually campaigns for war against Iran. Israel, not Iran, is the warmonger. Resolution lies with lifting all sanctions and compensating Iran for damages from the $$$ billions we will no longer be giving the Jewish state. American foreign policy must again serve American interests, not the Jewish state's paranoid pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest and racist empire in and beyond the Mideast.

EJanct1961
EJanct1961

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small_axe
small_axe

Yeah, it must have been accidental. Or maybe Putin had an epiphany. LOL.


We don't (and won't) know the inner workings of the closed door meetings, but you can be sure that this is the result of having a leader and administration who are capable of deep thinking and sophisticated, nuanced diplomacy. I'm inclined to believe that the face to face time between our leaders and Russia's this past weekend is not an incidental coincidence.


God help us all if we ever put the knee-jerk GOP back into the white house.


travelopnetwork
travelopnetwork

so is all this hullabaloo about Syria  really   all about IRAN ???????


mikevolze
mikevolze

What confuses me is this.  Iran knows that it was Assad, there was proof that Hezbollah was trying to talk Assad out of it during a meeting in Tehran.  Iran has first hand knowledge of how bad chemical weapons are from the Iraq war.  And yet the government is continuing to support a dictator who used them on his people. 


That's what confuses me most.

EdWapole
EdWapole

Are you the Moron who keeps on re-electing these Idiots in Washington?  If not, cut and paste this comment until we find them all.

jmac
jmac

Good for Rhouhani.   Very refreshing to read.   Good for  Iran's Khamenei for keeping his mouth shut.   (If only Karl Rove could follow Colin Powell's example)   Between the Arab nations and Putin willing to talk to Syria about it's chemical weapons I'm glad our President didn't rush to strike without Congress.    

dassa0069
dassa0069

Just love the videos on U-Tube with Netanyahu repeating "America is very easily moved." 

dassa0069
dassa0069

The Fix is in. The bribes have been paid. We can't change direction now!

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Jay. I hope you get to go back to Iran (perhaps as an Australian to minimize anti-US sentiment) to see if local folks still maintain the views you saw earlier, or are most recent views changing the view on the street - more hawkish or dovish?

outsider
outsider

Thanks Jay, 


I think the reason for resistance in Washington to listen to what Iran has to say is due in part to an industry that needs to have boogie men. 


If all the enemies suddenly became moderates, then the defense industry would be in peril. And heaven knows you can't cut the defense budget.. 



Tochorian
Tochorian

Good article, but there are a number of inaccuracies:

"Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened several times to wipe Israel from the face of the earth"

Ahmadinejad NEVER threatened Israel. He said something along the lines of "the Zionist regime should disappear". 

While Iran's rhetoric under Ahmadinejad was extreme and understandably concerning to Israel, it was not a military threat and did not violate international law.

Israel did make several military threats against Iran though, as well as most likely sponsoring terrorist car bombs that murdered Iranian educators and scientists on the streets of Tehran.

"tweeted at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter that Iran “never denied” the Holocaust and “the man who did is now gone.” He was presumably referring to Ahmadinejad."

Not quite. The tweet said "The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone" not "the man who did". This is important as it could mean that he believes Ahmadinejad was misinterpreted, as he often was, rather than actually denied the holocaust.

Anyway, besides these couple of exaggerations on tangential points, it's a good article.

jkarp60
jkarp60

@smehgol This is about Syria using chemical weapons on their own people.

Israel if you want to bring it up has NEVER used chemical weapons.


Nice try racist 

Darius_Arya
Darius_Arya

because the alternative, (country becoming a failed state, run over by Saudi backed Salafi elements, who consider killing Shiats and all other infidels a religious duty) is much much worse.

GoVikes
GoVikes

@mikevolze ...and, where do you get these highly-detailed information?

Marcus121
Marcus121

@jmac Come on! Really? It is like almost never ever been a situation not even one where America choosed action (When down, there is a meth as you never sit/talk when down, obviously the action is only to change that so then you may sit/talk) now go through the history whether you will find every time I mean every time we have solved/settled or benefited whether by accident, time delay or an incorrect decision to sit and talk under illusion of the other party being down but when we realise that we have also been so engaged that we can realise there are no doubts to our success.

mikevolze
mikevolze

@jmac But it doesn't matter if Khameni says anything.  Rouhani still has his hands tied by whatever politicking goes on in the Guardian council.

RamonRoman
RamonRoman

@dassa0069 He is such a lovely guy! He and his regime of Zionists are never moved. You see when they decide to strike Palestine with all its power, nobody stops them, not even its benefactor of 6 billion free taxpayer dollars a year. On the contrary, this benefactor that the Zionists know is easily moved, will encourage this massacre and even veto any resolution condemning the Zionists. They know that there are some American presidents that are going to do anything to back up the Zionist agenda. It looks like that, at least, Obama is more reluctant to play the Zionist game, even though he still plays it to please the GOP and the TEA PARTY Christians, who desperately want the coming of its Christ with a massacre of all humanity, including the jews, to rule for 1000 years of peace on the remains of 7 billion people.

mikevolze
mikevolze

@dassa0069 wait, from Israel or Iran?  You know the pro-peace Iran lobby is going strong now.  They'd rather let the Ayatollah keep killing kids in the street and build a nuke rather than stop him.

mikevolze
mikevolze

@Tochorian A did as JNSmall points out below.  In addition, they don't have the best track record for treating minorities well.  Just goodle Iranian Jews and skip all the state funded propaganda to see what I mean.

JNSmall
JNSmall moderator

@Tochorian http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/01/us-iran-idUSBRE8600HG20120701

Key reference graf:

The threat against the Jewish state echoed words President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke in 2005, saying Israel "must be wiped off the page of time" - a phrase often translated as "wiped off the map" and cited by Israel to show how allowing Iran to get nuclear arms would be a threat to its existence.


And as to the second point. See exactly what he said. No "perceived" in sight:

http://www.businessinsider.com/javad-zarif-tweets-with-christine-pelosi-2013-9

JNS

mikevolze
mikevolze

@GoVikes @mikevolze Well considering the Guardian ran a story last week about how Hezbollah was arguing against the use of chemical weapons in Iran, and it was reported by German intelligence, not American or Israeli.  That makes it more legitimate in my view at least.

jmac
jmac

@mikevolze @jmac   Just as Cameron had his hands tied recently by his Parliament.  Just as Obama might have his hands tied.  Big fat mess all around, but glimmers of hope abounding.     

jimlesoir
jimlesoir

@mikevolze @Tochorian Well, Iran's treatment of Jewish minorities is far better than Israel's treatment of the Palestinians whose lands it has stolen and occupied for 60 years! It might not be very good, but it certainly isn't expropriating them, arbitrarily detaining and torturing them, keeping 1.5 million in an open-air prison while denying them basic food and amenities, then dropping White Phosphorous on their schools and hospitals, killing hundreds of children at a time... 

Tochorian
Tochorian

@JNSmallThe statement is a mistranslation. The actual statement was "The regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish", which was advocating the dismantling of the Israeli government:

http://www.antiwar.com/orig/norouzi.php?articleid=11025

Even the mistranslated statement is not a threat, as "Israel must be wiped off the map" is advocacy of a particular outcome, not a threat of action. 

As for the tweet, this is the direct link:

https://twitter.com/JZarif/status/375617854214660097

It contains the word 'perceived'.

saranovash
saranovash

@mikevolze @jimlesoir @Tochorian

Do you guys even bother fact-checking before you post things as such to others you do not know?  I am an Iranian Jew living in the US and I even know the Iranian Jewish Parliament member - his name is Maurice Motamed.  He was elected in 2004 & again in 2008.

Just because you have been fed propaganda that you easily buy into is no reason to ASSUME other things based on the propaganda.  Buy into the propaganda if you must, but don't assume or make up other things.  It is not that hard to check.

mikevolze
mikevolze

@jimlesoir @mikevolze @Tochorian Well, there are Palestinians in the Israeli parliament right?  And they are allowed to hold government positions right?  Because neither of those is true in Iran.

zz1
zz1

@MangoW @JNSmall @Tochorian  Agreed. JN1Small is repeating a myth as if it was fact. Just because the Mainstream press reported on the various statements with obvious bias and agenda doesn't make there "interpretations" real or accurate.  What would be more appropriate is to say that the mainstream press widely reported that Ahmadinejad aid various things that were interpreted as being anti the state of Israel but were mostly just anti Zionist political agenda. Mainstream press being mostly controlled by Jewish editors they tend to interpret everything as anti Jew/Anti Israel. Can in point was the attempt to portray Rouhani as having said that Israel is a wound that must be removed. Just how exactly do you remove a wound? Clearly he originally said "wound that must be healed" but that would be too much like talk of peace for Bibi and his aggressive political agenda so they spun it into a negative angle to try to paint Rohani in a negative light and drum up support for more aggression.. 

JNSmall
JNSmall moderator

@Tochorian And, to be fair, Zarif changed his original tweet. The Business Insider tweet took a screen grab taken by Christine Pelosi done right after he tweeted it. He then erased that tweet and hedged it a little by adding perceived. 

JNS

JNSmall
JNSmall moderator

@Tochorian @JNSmall Hmm. I have updated the tweet. But I'm not giving Ahmadinejad a pass on his anti-Israeli rhetoric. 

JNS