In the wake of Hassan Rohani’s election as the Islamic Republic’s next president, some Western commentators have argued that Rohani’s election is a manifestation of popular antipathy toward various aspects of Iranian foreign policy, including Tehran’s strategy toward Syria. This reading reflects both an inaccurate interpretation of the results in the Islamic Republic’s June 14 presidential election and a deep misunderstanding of its Syria policy.
As Kayhan Barzegar explains in his most recent—and, as usual, succinctly insightful—article, see here, Iran’s Syria strategy, across “the different pragmatic, Reformist and Principalist governments of Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad,” is a function of perceived threats to Iranian interests and security. And, as our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, recounts in a discussion of Iran’s presidential election and its implications on China Radio International, listen here, president-elect Hassan Rohani himself said in one of the candidate debates that, under his presidency, Iranian policy toward Syria would not change. (The other panelists on the CRI program are Flynt and Ambassador Hua Liming, China’s former ambassador to the Islamic Republic; Mohammad’s remarks on Syria start at 45:05.)
Since the start of the current Syrian conflict, Tehran has been focused on two such threats—in Kayhan’s words, a “military threat from the United States and Israel,” and a “threat from local rivals” seeking to minimize Iran’s regional role. As Kayhan elaborates:
“The direct threat came from the United States and its Western allies when they made regime change in Syria a starting point to weakening Iran’s regional role, its nuclear stance and perhaps regime change in Iran. Iran’s regional rivals also saw an opportunity in the Syrian crisis to weaken its position in the region. The challenge has come not only from traditional rival Saudi Arabia, but also Qatar and Turkey, once a friendly state, as both took the opportunity to contend with Iranian influence. Together, the three states have formed a bloc to minimize Iran’s regional role. Therefore, Iran had no choice but to react or give ground on its traditional influence to its rivals.”
In contrast to current U.S. policy, though, Iranian strategy allows for—indeed, ascribes high priority to—serious diplomacy, conflict resolution, and a cooperative approach to regional security. As Kayhan underscores,
“It is interesting to observe how the US and the West, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, lost Iran’s influential role in solving the Syrian crisis at the onset. By minimizing Iran’s role in the Syrian developments and calling Iran part of the crisis in the country, the US marginalized the moderate voices inside Iran that sought meaningful changes and reform by the Assad regime. This provided the ground for the military-security elites to justify calling Syrian regime change an immediate threat to Iran’s national interests and security, subsequently shaping Iran’s Syria policy.
Unlike countries [such as] Egypt and Syria, which shape and conduct their political-security strategies based on their defeats in wars with Israel and losing land such as the Golan Heights, a great part of Iran’s active presence in the region aims to pre-empt future threats and keep its alliance with friendly states and political factions. Experience shows that in an interactive atmosphere and in the course of negotiations, Iran becomes more accommodating and constructive in settling a regional crisis. While Iran cooperated with the United States in establishing the new Afghanistan in the Bonn conference in 2001, it strongly opposed US regional policy when its national security was endangered by aggressive American calls for regime change after the victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, the degree of change in Iran’s regional policy directly depends on the actual and perceived threats that Iran sees from Washington and its allies in the region.”
Similarly, Seyed Mohammad notes that, by supporting violent jihadis and a “push for civil war” in Syria, in an attempt “to weaken Iran,” the United States and its European and regional partners are “creating a very dangerous situation, and this has become a threat to the whole world.” By contrast, Iran’s Syria policy is rooted in an assessment (shared by Dr. Rohani) that Assad has “the support of the general population” in Syria, and therefore “must remain in power until elections are held” in 2014. At that point, “free and fair elections, with the presence of foreign monitors, can take place…Whoever is elected in 2014 could then lead the country.”
From Tehran’s perspective, the United States, Britain, and France “simply do not want the issue, the civil war in Syria, to come to an end.” But, with the Syrian government’s recent gains on the battlefield and the growing prominence of al-Qa’ida-like jihadis on the opposition side, “some countries in the region are beginning to rethink their policy on Syria.” And some countries—like Turkey—are “under pressure” because of their Syria policy. So, perhaps Dr. Rohani’s accession to the Islamic Republic’s presidency “would be an excuse for the Saudis and the Qataris to think of some sort of negotiated settlement with Iran…If the Saudis begin to reconsider their support for al-Qa’ida, and jabhat an-Nusra, and other extremist forces, then there is good potential” for constructive diplomacy between regional states now supporting the rebels and Tehran.
And, if the United States and its European partners persist in their destructive policies toward Syria, Iran and its partners, including Hizballah, calculate that they can ultimately turn this to their advantage, too. With regard to Hizballah, we have just returned from a visit to Beirut. As Hillary explains on Al Jazeera, Hizballah is well aware (as are Iranian officials) that supporting the Assad government has cost both it and the Islamic Republic some of the enormous standing they had built up over the last decade or so with Sunni Arab publics—especially as Saudi Arabia and other actors on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf assiduously pursue “a targeted campaign” to cast the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms. But Hizballah and Iran both calculate that, at the end of the day, “the sectarian issue will die on the altar of Israel and the United States,” with “people eventually realizing that this is all about [American and Israeli] dominance and hegemony.”
Given the Obama administration’s course, it may not take Middle Easterners that long to realize that America’s Syria policy is, indeed, all about dominance and hegemony.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett