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What to do now? Iran Torn on Syria

Alireza Nader

            Iran has mixed feelings and conflicting interests in the Syrian crisis. Tehran has a strategic interest in opposing chemical weapons due to its own horrific experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. For years, President Saddam Hussein’s military used chemical weapons that killed thousands of Iranian soldiers. So Iran actually shares interests with the United States, European nations and the Arab League in opposing any use of chemical weapons.
But the Islamic Republic also has compelling reasons to continue supporting Damascus. The Syrian regime is Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East and the geographic link to its Hezbollah partners in Lebanon. As a result, Tehran vehemently opposes U.S. intervention or any action that might change the military balance against President Bashar Assad.
On one hand…
  Iran opposes the use of chemical weapons based on its own experience. Iran is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention while Syria is not.
  Tehran wants to reduce tensions with the West in order to lift sanctions.
  Iran is reportedly spending millions of dollars per month  to support the Assad regime while its own economy suffers from sanctions, unemployment and inflation.
  The United States has sanctioned Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force for helping Syria suppress anti-government protests.
On the other hand…
 Tehran opposes military intervention by outside powers in the Middle East.
  Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the region and part of the “resistance front” against Israel.
  Syria is a key conduit for transferring arms and supplies to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which deters against an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  Iran has invested millions of dollars in Syria’s economy and provided training to its army.
Syrian rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni and are hostile to Shiite Iran.
            The Iran-Syria alliance is more than a marriage of convenience. Tehran and Damascus have common geopolitical, security, and economic interests. Syria was one of only two Arab nations (the other being Libya) to support Iran’s fight against Saddam Hussein, and it was an important conduit for weapons to an isolated Iran. Furthermore, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, allowed Iran to help create Hezbollah, the Shiite political movement in Lebanon. Its militia, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been an effective tool against Syria’s archenemy, Israel.
      Relations between Tehran and Damascus have been rocky at times. Hafez Assad clashed with Hezbollah in Lebanon and was wary of too much Iranian involvement in his neighborhood. But his death in 2000 reinvigorated the Iran-Syria alliance. Bashar Assad (left, with Supreme Leader Khamenei) has been much more enthusiastic about Iranian support, especially since Hezbollah’s “victorious” 2006 conflict with Israel.
            In the last decade, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have trained, equipped, and at times even directed Syria’s security and military forces. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims and tourists visited Syria before its civil war, and Iranian companies made significant investments in the Syrian economy.
            Fundamentalist figures within the Guards view Syria as the “front line” of Iranian resistance against Israel and the United States. Without Syria, Iran would not be able to supply Hezbollah effectively, limiting its ability to help its ally in the event of a war with Israel. Hezbollah wields thousands of rockets able to strike Israel, providing Iran deterrence against Israel— especially if Tel Aviv chose to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. A weakened Hezbollah would directly impact Iran’s national security. Syria’s loss could also tip the balance in Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, making the Wahhabi kingdom one of the most influential powers in the Middle East.
            In the run up to a U.S. decision on military action against Syria, Iranian leaders appeared divided.

      Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei  and hardline lawmakers reacted with alarm to possible U.S. strikes against the Assad regime. And Revolutionary Guards commanders threatened to retaliate against U.S. interests. The hardliners clearly viewed the Assad regime as an asset worth defending as of September 2013.
      But President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani adopted a more critical line on Syria. “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused,” Zarif told a local publication in September 2013.
             Rafsanjani, still an influential political figure, reportedly said that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This was a clear breach of official Iranian policy, which has blamed the predominantly Sunni rebels. Rafsanjani’s words suggested that he viewed unconditional support for Assad as a losing strategy. His remark also earned a rebuke from Khamenei, who warned Iranian officials against crossing the “principles and red lines” of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei’s message may have been intended for Rouhani’s government, which is closely aligned with Rafsanjani and seems to increasingly view the Syrian regime as a liability.
             Regardless, a significant section of Iran’s political elite could be amenable to engaging the United States on Syria. Both sides have a common interest: preventing Sunni extremists from coming to power in Damascus. Iran and the United States also prefer a negotiated settlement over military intervention to solve the crisis. Tehran might need to be included in a settlement given its influence in Syria. Negotiating with Iran on Syria could ultimately help America’s greater goal of a diplomatic breakthrough, not only on Syria but Tehran’s nuclear program as well. 
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Photo Credits: Bashar Assad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei via Leader.ir, Syria graphic via Khamenei.ir Facebook
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Report: Iran-Turkey Rivalry

            Turkish and Iranian interests in the Middle East are increasingly at odds, especially in Syria and Iraq, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation. Turkish energy needs and massive Iranian oil and natural gas resources heightened levels of cooperation between the two countries during the last decade. But F. Stephen Larrabee and Alireza Nader argue that Tehran and Ankara are “rivals rather than close partners.” Ankara’s “main fear” is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a regional arms race, according to the report. Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition has especially strained relations with Iran, which has aided President Bashar Assad against the rebels. The following are excerpts from the report with a link to the full text at the end.

            The Arab Spring has given the political and ideological rivalry between Turkey and Iran greater impetus. The fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in addition to uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, has undermined the political order in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran both have sought to exploit the emerging “new order” in the region to achieve their respective interests in the Middle East.
            Relations have been strained by a number of issues. The most important factor contributing to the growing strains in relations has been Turkey’s support for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is Iran’s only true state ally in the Middle East. Since 1979, the secular, Alawite-dominated, Baathist Syrian regime and Iran’s Shi’a theocracy have strongly supported each other. Assad’s downfall would be a serious strategic blow to Iran and could result in the growth of Turkey’s influence. It could also have a demonstration effect on Iran, strengthening internal opposition to the Iranian regime and deepening the current divisions within the Iranian leadership.
            Iraq has also become a field of growing competition between Turkey and Iran. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has created a power vacuum that Iran has attempted to fill. The sectarian conflict between the Shi’a and Sunni has drawn Turkey and Iran into the Iraqi conflict on opposing sides. While the Turkish-Iranian competition in Iraq is not as significant as the tensions over Syria, it could gain new strength with Assad’s downfall, leading to wide-spread sectarian violence that could be highly destabilizing.
            The Kurdish issue has also emerged as a source of tension between Ankara and Tehran. The Turkish government suspects Syria and Iran of providing support to the main Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As the unrest in Syria has spread, the Assad regime’s control over the Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border has eroded, deepening Turkish anxieties that this will strengthen calls for greater autonomy among Turkey’s own Kurdish population and that Syria and, to some extent, Iran may use Turkey’s vulnerabilities on the Kurdish issue in an attempt to reshape Turkey’s policy toward the Syrian regime.
            The Palestinian issue provides yet another area of rivalry between the two countries. Iran views its opposition to Israel as enhancing its popularity in the Arab world. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assertive support for the Palestinians has stolen Iran’s thunder and has been an important factor contributing to the deterioration of Ankara’s relations with Israel.
            Turkey and Iran are also potential rivals for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, competition between Turkey and Iran in these regions has been muted. Iranian influence has been constrained in Central Asia and the Caucasus due to a number of factors, including Russia’s dominant role as a regional power broker.
            Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of strain and divergence in U.S.-Turkish relations, especially as Turkey has attempted to play the role of mediator between Iran and P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). However, the differences between the United States and Turkey regarding Iran’s nuclear program are largely over tactics, not strategic goals. Turkey’s main fear is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This, in turn, could increase pressure on the Turkish government to consider developing its own nuclear weapon capability.
            Turkey’s approach to the nuclear issue will heavily depend on U.S. policy and the credibility of the commitment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to Article V of the Washington Treaty on collective defense. As long as Turkey feels that NATO takes seriously Turkish security concerns, Ankara is unlikely to rethink its nuclear policy. However, if Turkish confidence in the U.S. and NATO commitment to its security weakens, Ankara could begin to explore other options for ensuring its security, including the possible acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent. Thus, maintaining the credibility of the commitment of alliance members to Article V remains critical.
Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of “Iran After the Bomb.”

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Rouhani: Rival Constituencies

Alireza Nader

            Hassan Rouhani now faces the hard part. Iran’s president-elect won a decisive and surprising victory because he appealed to three conflicting constituencies— conservatives, reformists exiled from the political system, and Iranians dissatisfied with the status quo. Now his ability to govern will depend on satisfying disparate factions. Each has its own set of expectations—and each is also intent on coming out on top.
      Rouhani may be able to deliver results precisely because he is an insider. Since the 1979 revolution, he has served in some of the Islamic Republic’s highest positions. Before his 2013 election, Rouhani was Iran’s national security advisor for 16 years and then head of a government think tank. So he has close ties to Iran’s military and national security establishment. Rouhani has also been a deputy speaker of parliament and a member of the Assembly of Experts ― the only constitutional body with the authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader. Among 686 candidates who registered, he was one of only eight allowed to run for the presidency.
            So far, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and conservative pressure groups ― such as the Islamic Revolution Steadfastness Front associated with ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi ― have thrown their support behind him. So the smiling cleric must be careful not to disturb his relations with these key power centers.
            But Rouhani has also presented himself as a moderate and a reformist. And he is, in a relative context. Next to bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani is indeed a moderate. And compared to the other candidates in the race, Rouhani used language about freedoms at home and “constructive interaction” with the international community that allowed him to don the reformist mantle.
            Yet he is not as much of a reformist as Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president who withdrew from the presidential race to support Rouhani. Nor is he as much of a reformer as former President Mohammad Khatami. Other credible reformist leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—who both ran for the presidency in the disputed 2009 election--remain under house arrest. And former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist or pragmatist, was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Thus, Rouhani was the closest thing to a reformer on the ballot. Both Khatami and Rafsanjani endorsed him.
            Rouhani was elected with the support of conservatives and reformists, but it was the Iranian people — exhausted by repression, inflation, and sanctions — who voted him in. Rouhani’s campaign raised people’s expectations and they will seek much in return. But he could risk weakening his support within the regime if he responds unilaterally to popular demands. As Rouhani has stated, Iranians want a “freer and more prosperous life.” Many of his supporters have also demanded the release of political prisoners, especially Mousavi and Karroubi. The regime, which describes both men as leaders of the 2009 “sedition” against the system, may resist freeing them, especially if the reformists do not atone for their perceived sins against the Islamic Republic.
            Iranians expect significant and fast improvements in the economy. Some of the most onerous U.S. and international sanctions could be lifted if Rouhani succeeds in demonstrating transparency on the nuclear program. But he may not be able quickly reverse Iran’s fortunes. Many economic problems predate the imposition of sanctions. The Ahmadinejad government’s inflationary economic policies and growing corruption among the elite also are responsible for Iran’s dismal economic outlook.
            Rouhani may improve the economy in pursuing his underlying goal to preserve the Islamic system. He will almost certainly try to defuse tensions with the international community over the nuclear program, improve Iran’s relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, and pursue relief from international sanctions. Rouhani will present a cheery face for a government described in global public opinion polls as one of the most unpopular in the world.
            But not all Iranians would be satisfied with just economic improvements. Many want greater freedom of expression and a bigger say in the political system. Rouhani’s status as an accomplished insider may also work against his ability to enact political reforms. He may not be able or even willing to offer Iranians what they seek ― especially as long as Khamenei remains in power. Still, Rouhani’s presidency could be a last chance for peaceful change in the Islamic Republic.

Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of “Iran After the Bomb.”

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Rand Report on Iran Election

            In a new Rand report, Alireza Nader examines the implications of the election, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's objectives, the regime's electoral strategy, the competing factions and personalities, and the potential implications for the United States, especially concerning Iran's nuclear program. Among the key findings ofIran's 2013 Presidential Election: Its Meaning and Implications”:

• Ayatollah Khamenei is concerned with the election's legitimacy, but his goal above all else is to ensure a stable election that produces a president loyal to him personally.
• The only serious potential challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani, has been removed from the field of candidates, and this could help Khamenei further consolidate his power.
• The election could theoretically lead to a limited reduction of tensions between Iran and the international community, but Khamenei's monopolization of power will likely decrease Iran's flexibility on the nuclear program, depending on U.S. and Israeli policies.
• No matter who is elected president, the Islamic Republic is likely to continue its evolution into an authoritarian political system dominated by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.


The Supreme Leader’s Revenge

Alireza Nader

            Iranian politics are personal. Indeed, the theocrats are decidedly earthly in their rivalries. But the 2013 election is particularly telling. It may be settling a score dating back a quarter century between the revolution’s two most enduring politicos—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

      The two men have competed for power and the right to define the revolution since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Rafsanjani originally had the upper hand in two sweeping changes. He oversaw constitutional changes that created an executive president, which he then ran for and won. And, in Tehran’s worst-kept secret, he orchestrated Khamenei’s selection as the new supreme leader, reportedly because Khamenei was a middle-ranking cleric and dour figure who could not rival Rafsanjani’s political base or charismatic wiles. Khamenei actually owes his power and position to Rafsanjani, the man known in Iran as the “shark.”
      But since 1989, Rafsanjani’s master plan has gradually unraveled. In 2013, Khamenei has now managed not only to emerge from Khomeini’s shadow. He has also sidelined most of his old rivals, including the crafty Rafsanjani. On May 21, Rafsanjani was disqualified from running for the presidency—even though the 12-man Guardian Council had qualified him to run in three earlier elections. He had been elected twice. Rafsanjani is 78. Winning elected political office is likely to be increasingly difficult. Hardliners in parliament even considered legislation this year that would bar any candidate over the age of 75.
            For now, Khamenei is his own man. Yet the two rivals still epitomize a core schism among the original revolutionaries.
            Rafsanjani believes Islam should be the basis of Iran’s political system. But he also advocates facets of modern politics, including republican institutions, an essentially capitalist economy, and a foreign policy that honors international practices. It is not liberal democracy. It instead has electoral outlets with strict safeguards that protect religious and revolutionary doctrines. Rafsanjani appears to view himself as a modern day version of Amir Kabir, the reformist chief vizier for Qajar dynasty Naser al Din Shah in the 19th century.
            In contrast, Khamenei is more conservative and dogmatic. He believes that the supreme leader, rather than the president, should be the theocracy’s key decision-maker. He also appears to view the Iranian people more as subjects than citizens. For Khamenei, the supreme leader’s authority is primarily derived from God and the Hidden Imam. Elected institutions are meant to implement his policies rather than shape them.
            Khamenei has spent the last 24 years converting his vision into a reality—and taking on his revolutionary peers. Between 1989 and 1997, he tolerated President Rafsanjani’s economic liberalization and attempted détente with the West because he had little choice as a newly minted leader. But he used the time to build his own power base, tapping into close connections to the Revolutionary Guards. He had served as their supervisor and deputy minister of defense during the revolution’s first decade and the tough eight-year war with Iraq.
            Once Rafsanjani’s term was over, Khamenei used the Guards to suppress reformists under President Mohammad Khatami, who held office for two terms between 1997 and 2005. Khamenei was widely believed to feel threatened by Khatami, a suave cleric who had popular appeal and a historic connection to Khomeini. Like Rafsanjani, Khatami was also thwarted from running again in the 2013 presidential election.
            Khamenei’s initial support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who first ran for the presidency in 2005, was partly because the Tehran mayor’s had no connections to Khomeini. He was also not a cleric with religious standing that could undermine the supreme leader. The other two major candidates in the disputed 2009 presidential race — Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — had both been close to Khomeini. As prime minister from 1981 to 1989, Mousavi had frequently clashed with Khamenei at a time Iran had a parliamentary government and Khamenei was titular president. Karroubi had been head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Martyr's Foundation as well as speaker of parliament. Both men are now under house arrest for challenging the 2009 election and serving as leaders of the so-called “sedition” against Khamenei’s rule.
            Khamenei has managed to clear the field. Yet his position at the top is also lonely and potentially unwieldy.
            Ironically, Iran’s supreme leader now faces opposition from an unexpected source — the family of the only other man who held the job. Khomeini’s daughter recently published an open letter to Khamenei stating that her father wanted Iran to be ruled by Khamenei and Rafsanjani working side-by-side. She warned that Rafsanjani’s removal from power would make the regime a dictatorship — and could even imperil the revolution.
Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of “Iran After the Bomb.”


Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"


Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

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