On July 25, the United States introduced new measures to ease the export of humanitarian goods, especially medical supplies, to Iran. Humanitarian supplies are technically not restricted by sanctions, but U.S. sanctions on key Iranian banks has affected the ability to pay for medical goods. The limited flow of medical supplies has produced shortages and a growing health crisis. The U.S. move comes 10 days before the inauguration of President-elect Hassan Rouhani.
TREASURY EXPANDS LIST OF BASIC MEDICAL SUPPLIES AUTHORIZED FOR EXPORT TO IRAN AND FURTHER CLARIFIES EXPORT AND FINANCING MECHANISMS AVAILABLE FOR HUMANITARIAN GOODS
WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury took actions to reinforce longstanding U.S. Government efforts to ensure that our extensive economic and financial sanctions on Iran – adopted to encourage Iran to comply with its international obligations – do not impede Iran’s humanitarian imports. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) expanded the list of basic medical supplies authorized for export or reexport to Iran under an existing general license by adding hundreds of items; OFAC had previously issued specific licenses authorizing the export or reexport of these items. OFAC also issued further clarifying guidance on existing broad authorizations and exceptions applicable to the sale of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices by non-U.S. persons to Iran.
“Today’s action to expand the general license for the export of medical devices to Iran reflects an important element of our sanctions policy. Even as we continue to implement and enforce our rigorous sanctions regime against Iran, we are committed to safeguarding legitimate humanitarian trade,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.
In today’s action, OFAC expanded the list of basic medical supplies authorized for export or reexport under an existing general license, originally issued in October 2012, to encompass a broad range of medical supplies and devices, including electrocardiography machines (EKGs), electroencephalography machines (EEGs), and dialysis machines, along with other types of equipment that are used by hospitals, clinics, and medical facilities in Iran. These items, which were previously eligible for specific licensing from OFAC, can now be exported without prior approval from OFAC. Exporters are also still encouraged to apply for specific licenses for medical devices that may not be included in today’s expanded list.
Even as the U.S. and international sanctions have tightened, the Treasury and State Departments have had extensive discussions with foreign pharmaceutical and medical supply companies that sell, export, and get paid for exports to Iran, as well as the foreign financial institutions involved in those transactions, to ensure that the exemptions from our sanctions are understood. Medicine and medical supply exporters reporting barriers to trade have repeatedly pointed to obstacles placed by the Government of Iran, including the Central Bank of Iran’s failing to allocate sufficient foreign currency. The Central Bank of Iran has access to sufficient foreign currency funds outside of Iran – which are otherwise usable only to fund bilateral trade – to finance the import of medicines and medical equipment.
As OFAC has made clear in its Clarifying Guidance: Humanitarian Assistance and Related Exports to the Iranian People, issued on February 6, 2013, and in the Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations (31 C.F.R. part 561) (IFSR) [*1], foreign financial institutions may process transactions for the purchase of humanitarian goods including, food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices, using funds in Central Bank of Iran accounts without being subject to U.S. sanctions. Today’s Guidance on Sales of Food, Agricultural Commodities, Medicine, and Medical Devices to Iran is meant to ensure that all parties to these transactions fully understand the broad humanitarian allowances embedded in our sanctions laws.
Rouhani’s English-language account was launched on May 5. It had more than 13,000 followers by late July and produced up to 50 tweets per day. But @HassanRouhani only followed four on Twitter — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, former President Mohammed Khatami, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref.
The scope of the president-elect’s personal involvement in his Twitter accounts is unclear. But he is fluent in English. Rouhani received master’s and doctoral degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s. @HassanRouhani even tweeted a link to a video of him receiving his doctorate. And the pace of Rouhani’s tweets has increased since the election, as has the range of topics tweeted.
The English account is savvy in its use of Twitter shorthand and hashtags. In a country where Western media is hard to find, the account has retweeted articles from The Wall Street Journal, CNN and other American media—notably pieces that portrayed his election as a fresh start for Iran and the outside world.A third account— @HassanRouhani_, which tweets in Arabic, English, French and Spanish—is not associated with the president-elect, the Facebook administrator claimed. The following is a rundown of tweets by @HassanRouhani on key issues.
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant in the Center for Conflict Management at the United States Institute of Peace.
The Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars offers the latest news on Iran, based on a selection of Iranian news sources. It is a weekly summary of up-to-date information with links to news in both English and Farsi.
- July 17: During the first meeting of the Guardian Council’s new session, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was chosen to remain as head of the power vetting council. Mohammed Alizadeh was also re-elected as the Deputy Secretary of the Council.
- July 17: Rahmatollah Hafezi, a member of Tehran’s newly elected 4th City Council, said that currently the city council is in the process of choosing the next Mayor of Tehran and at the moment there are about 20 people being discussed. When asked about the possible retention of former presidential candidate Mohammed Qalibaf as mayor, Hafezi said, “We prefer the relationship we have with Qalibaf… There will be two to three rounds of screenings in which three to four individuals will be invited to share and present their plans that they have for the position of mayor of Tehran.” Hafezi concluded, “After the candidates have made their presentations, the city council will begin to debate the choices, and we predict that after the first city council meeting we will be able to introduce the selected mayor of Tehran.”
- July 17: Fars News posted photos of one of the last meetings of the 3rd City Council of Tehran, in which council member and sister of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Parvin Ahmadinejad is present. She was not re-elected to Tehran’s 4th City Council during this summer’s city council elections. Fars News also posted a series of photos of Parvin’s brother Mahmoud heading one of the few remaining cabinet meetings of his administration.
- July 18: Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi cited statistics that brought him to the conclusion that most marriages that have ended in divorce are among married students. "Unfortunately, today in Iran, divorce is rising and marriage is decreasing, and divorce is a social necessity, but only when there are no other options." He went on to say that "Islam never prohibited divorce,” and that, "We need to bring divorce to a minimum in our society. Today in our society, it is not easy for two people to marry one another, but it is easy for them to divorce." Shirazi concluded, "After a divorce, the woman may be allowed to stay in the spouse's house and be free to do what she likes and not have to wear a hijab in the house until a certain amount of time, where the tension and animosity subsides and then they could reconcile."
- July 18: MP and First Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Reza Bahonar said, “The people have seen eight years of Reformist rule and eight years of conservative rule and have seen their narrow mindedness. After 16 years the people have turned toward moderation.” Bahonar also admitted, “Running the country at this current moment is a very difficult task.”
- July 18: Filmmakers and artists once again protested outside of Iran’s House of Cinema building today. ISNA posted photos that reveal that during their latest rally, the protesters somehow opened the lock that authorities placed on the doors. As a result, security forces intervened to stop any further escalation. Photos also reveal Iran’s very own Oscar winning director, Asghar Farhadi, also present at the rally.
- July 19: During Friday prayers, the head of the Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati emphasized the responsibilities of the Guardian Council. “Since its establishment, the Guardian Council has been bound to the law and the policies of the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council has carried a heavy burden with legal, religious, and political issues in multiple elections. But sometimes we encounter situations in which not everyone is satisfied, especially in elections in which some (people) find it hard to restrain themselves and hold their tongue, while some feel free to say what they want. But we tolerate them because it is our duty to do so.” Jannati also referred to “seditionists” (the term used for people who disputed the 2009 election results) and said, “Those who claimed cheating in the 2009 elections should face the people and be ashamed of themselves. Why did they disregard the votes of the people and leave such a bitter taste in people’s mouths? Up until now we have been too nonchalant with them (seditionists).”
- July 19: Minister of Intelligence Hojjat al-Islam Haydar Moslehi responded to recent reports of surveillance equipment found in MP Ali Motahari’s office and said, “This story is important and raises many questions. We have been following this (case) since last Thursday. The ministry met with Ali Motahari, re-inspected his office, and made the necessary orders to pursue this matter.”
- July 20: Female MP and a member of the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee Zahra Elahian spoke about the possibility of former British foreign minister Jack Straw attending the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Hassan Rouhani. “It seems that Mr. Straw is trying to coordinate with this country’s government (Iran) and show his willingness to re-open the British Embassy in Tehran.” She added, “Mr. Rouhani and his foreign policy team should not adopt such a passive stance in regards to this relationship (with the British).” Elahian continued her warnings by citing British meddling in Iranian domestic affairs in after the 2009 elections, and how “the BBC broadcasts psychological warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
- July 20: Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, has written a letter published on his personal website to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in which he asks that Mir-Hussein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi be released so that they can attend the inauguration of President-elect Hassan Rohani. Montazeri also called for the release of other political prisoners and prisoners of conscious as well. “Today, due to the political and economic conditions of our dear country, now more than ever we need to put effort into creating unity and national solidarity. The inauguration ceremony (for Hassan Rouhani) can be used to provide national unity and solidarity by having representatives from different opposition and current ruling political groups attending.
- July 21: During an Iftar ceremony at the Hosseni Imam Khomeini mosque with a group of senior Iranian officials, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that he was not opposed to talk with Washington on certain issues. “I am not optimistic about negotiations with the United States, although I have not rejected negotiations over certain issues such as Iraq in the past years.” Khamenei also added, “We have always believed in interaction with the world,” but any interaction must be based on a proper recognition of the other side.” Mehr News published a set of photos of the event which reveal every top official in the Iranian government in attendance.
- July 22: During a press conference, the spokesperson for Iran’s judiciary Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei was asked about speculation regarding Iranians that left the country after the 2009 election and the possibility of them returning to Iran as tied to the changing of administrations, and if this was in fact legally possible. Mohseni-Ejei said, “If an individual has committed a crime inside Iran, or if an Iranian outside the country has committed a crime, the judiciary can prosecute them. The judiciary will not ban anyone from entering Iran if they have committed a crime. It is possible that the individual could be forbidden from leaving the country once inside, but if the individual has committed a crime, we won’t stop them from entering the country but once inside, we will investigate the charges against the individual.”
- July 22: Member of the Women’s Council on Reform, and former Deputy for Social Affairs of the Ministry of Interior, Ashraf Boroujerdi said, “The formation of an inclusive female (political/social) party is an extremely difficult task. If the group’s purpose is to form a group with women who hold and believe in different ideas, it will not be possible.” She continued, “A (successful) party is formed with a collection of like-minded individuals with clear goals… in this field (women’s activism) there many different types of ideas and the expression of those ideas somewhat defeats the purpose (of the group).”
- July 22: Former president Mohammed Khatami celebrates an Iftar ceremony with a room full of poets. ISNA posted photos of Khatami laughing and smiling during the ceremony.
- July 23: In his weekly press conference with reporters, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Araqchi emphasized that “this is the first time since the victory of the Islamic Revolution that it has been decided to invite foreign officials to attend the inauguration ceremony.” In a turn of events, Araqchi threw cold water on the widely reported possibility of a U.S. official being invited to the inauguration. “Our invitation includes all the countries (of the world), of course with the exception of the United States as well as the Zionist regime that we do not formally recognize us as a country,” said Araqchi.
- July 23: Outspoken MP and member of the Parliament’s Cultural Commission, Ali Motahari weighed in on a potential future role for former president Mohammed Khatami in the Rouhani administration, as well as the recent controversy surrounding whether or not former British foreign secretary Jack Straw should attend President-elect Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony without pre-conditions. “Currently he (Straw) has no position in the British government. If these prominent figures request to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new president, why should we not allow them? Sometimes through such means, governments can improve their relationship. Iran could also send appealing figures such as (former president) Mohammed Khatami to some foreign countries in order to resolve some of the country’s foreign policy issues… these methods are commonly used in today’s world. Former and retired officials can sometimes thaw the frozen political relations between countries.” Motahari concluded his remarks by addressing the comments of a number of Iranian MPs regarding whether or not Straw should apologize before coming to Iran. “If Jack Straw has to apologize to the Iranian nation, the occupiers of the British embassy in Tehran should also apologize,” said Motahari.
- July 23: While speaking to staff members of the judiciary, head of the judiciary Sadeq Amoli Larijani claimed that “Islam was the true harbinger of human rights,” and that the West imposes its own principles on the world. “Ignoring the situation in Bahrain and Egypt are prime examples of inconsistent behavior and respect for freedom that the west has for human rights.”
- July 23: Majid Abhari, a pathology and behavioral science specialist, told ILNA that “67% of youth inside Iran have no real goals for their future.” His research with the Institute of Behavioral Sciences was fielded from numerous cities around Iran and studied over 8,000 boys and girls between the ages of 17-26. According to Abhari, the main factors for this phenomenon are “lifestyle changes induced by friends, satellite TV, and the Internet.” In order to solve this issue, Abhari claimed that the “best way for youths to reform this behavior would be to return to their Iranian and Islamic lifestyle.”
- July 23: The director of Tehran Air Quality Control, Yousef Rashidi, said that based on pollution measuring stations in Tehran, “The air quality index today is at an unsafe condition as pollutant particles and particulates from car emissions are currently 2.5 microns beyond the safe limit.” He advised people with sensitive medical conditions to remain indoors or at least reduce the number of hours they spend outside. The city of Tehran annually battles and chokes on a fog of air pollution, usually in the winter and summer months.
- July 23: In an interview with Khabar Online, the managing director of Iran's Aviation Industries Organization (IAIO), Manouchehr Manteqi, spoke about the status of Iran’s aviation industry as well as new aerospace projects and said that Iran has designed and domestically manufactured a 52-passenger airplane. He also said that at the moment “Iran’s national aviation industry in conjunction with seven international companies are producing a short to medium range 150 passenger plane that can be compared to a Boeing 737 series airplane or an Airbus 320 airplane.” Manteqi admitted that international sanctions have had an effect on Iran’s aviation industry but that “Iran has prepared and dealt with sanctions from early on, and has a mechanism to deal with them.” ISNA posted a series of photos of an airplane manufacturing plant in Isfahan that resembles the 52-passenger plane that Manteqi is speaking about.
- July 23: Tabnak News posted photos of Tehran’s police conducting their third sweep of “thugs and criminals in the capital of Tehran.” The items and evidence that were allegedly confiscated during the sweep were put on display for the public and media. They include guns, knives, swords, axes, drug paraphernalia, alcohol, jewelry, and prohibited music CDs from Western countries. The security forces also made sure to publicly shame those who were arrested during the photo-op by exposing the tattoos of those arrested. Tattoos are deemed by authorities as un-Islamic.
- July 24: Members of the Central Council of the Islamic Students Association wrote an open letter to President-elect Rouhani with regard to who he wishes to name as his education minister. The letter begins with concern, “In choosing your minister to steer the ship of education, we expect you to carefully pick someone who will build the future generation, and who has the utmost intelligence.”
- July 24: At an Iftar banquet, former presidential candidate and MP Gholam Reza Hadad-Adel was asked whether he had been suggested as a possibility to serve in President-elect Rouhani’s still to-be-determined cabinet. To which Adel responded, “No, I have not been recommended (to serve).”
- July 24: During a meeting meant to praise representatives of the media that have covered the outgoing president for the past eight years, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “We (the 10th administration) appreciate everybody, writers that are in agreement (with my policies), as well as writers that are opposed, we all work toward higher goals.” Ahmadinejad then flashed a little bit of his well-known charisma and said, “I want to add a little humor right now. One day a friend of mine told me, it is not important whether they write in favor about you, or write against you, what is important is that they are writing about you, and in this regard, I’d like to thank all my media friends in attendance today.” ISNA also posted a set of photographs of the event.
- July 24: In a meeting with the staff of the Expediency Council, the head of the council and former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke about the recent presidential election and said, “God realized in the hearts of the people, a sense of consciousness and responsibility, and under the worst conditions they came out (to vote). We must utilize this situation and not let the hope of the election turn into disappointment.” Rafsanjani then referred to the “biased political grudges that the enemies of the Islamic Revolution have toward Iran” by saying, “There were no expectations that after the elections the new conditions would make them (enemies of Iran) behave out of the norm or diplomatic.”
- July 25: At an Iftar ceremony, former reformist presidential candidate and MP Mostafa Kavakebian said, “I am not saying that Mr. Rouhani is 100% reformist, but his discourse is reformist.” Kavakebian also remarked on the notion that Rouhani would not have won the election without the help of former presidents Mohammed Khatami, Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as other reformists. “This could be true, but Rouhani had great potential and capacity (to win.)”
- July 25: The office of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that, at the president’s behest, this Friday’s ceremony meant to celebrate the past eight years of Ahmadinejad’s tenure and the work of his governors, deputizes, and ministers has been canceled. “In keeping with the spirit of simple living and conservative lifestyle, avoidance of extravagancies, and keeping in mind the lower levels of society, the beloved president has decided to cancel the event. In the last days of the tenth administration, this is yet another golden mark in his brilliant public service record.”
Click here for a pdf version.
Fulton is the author of “The IRGC Command Network: Formal Structures and Informal Influence,” which details the evolution of a powerful faction within the Revolutionary Guard’s core leadership and its influence on regime decision-making.
The “Command Network” is one faction of extremely influential hardline IRGC commanders. This is a group with relationships dating back to the 1980-1988 war with Iraq that has since remained remarkably cohesive. Many of its members almost certainly interacted with Rouhani during the war or his 16 years as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
On July 2, Brig. Gen. Ali Fazli, deputy commander of the paramilitary Basij and a Command Network member, attempted to legitimize the controversial 2009 reelection of President Ahmadinejad by pointing to the success of the 2013 election of Rouhani. “Those who accused the system of fraud in the  election have realized with the people’s epic participation in the recent election that their claims were complete lies…. Those who made improper claims of fraud and entered the electoral process with doubt and created suspicion among the Iranian people should today come and apologize to the people and the system.”
In the domestic realm, the IRGC may tolerate attempts by the new government to reform civil society, as long as reforms do not unleash currents that jeopardize regime stability. For example, the IRGC tolerated President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government until the July 1999 student protests prompted the Guards’ leadership to threaten direct intervention if the government did not contain the situation. This is not a perfect comparison, however, as the IRGC has become more aggressive in responding to internal threats since IRGC commander Jafari’s 2007 appointment, and especially since mass demonstrations after the 2009 election. The Command Network, the same core group that then controlled the IRGC and warned Khatami, has only strengthened its grip in the intervening years. It is now is positioned to intervene again against any perceived challenges to the regime or the Guards’ interests.
U.S. State Department
Furthermore, it should be noted that both Ba'athist Syria and Islamist Iran have been fiercely independent states, whose political elites share certain perceptions and world views, and in fact their secular and fundamentalist ideologies overlap in certain respects. While Iran has tried to use its brand of revolutionary Islam to transcend nationalism, create Muslim unity in the region by surmounting Arab-Iranian political divisions and Shia-Sunni religious differences, and demonstrate its solidarity by actively participating in the Arab-Israeli struggle, Syria, as the self-proclaimed birthplace and heartland of Arabism, has striven to overcome the political fragmentation of the Arab world by acting as a vehicle for Arab unity. Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Khomeini, and their successors have viewed the Middle East as a strategic whole and regarded their alliance as a vital tool to assert themselves, to further what they see as in the Arab and Islamic interest, and to increase their room for maneuvering by diminishing foreign—particularly American—influence in the region. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years and decades, both regimes have put longer-term interests before short-term gains.
With regard to the Arab Spring, when the initial wave of popular protests first began in Tunisia in the winter of 2010-2011 and spread to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrators, who largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes. Portraying the opposition movements as Islamist, the Iranian leadership confidently declared that the Arab Spring would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. From Tehran’s perspective, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies. History seemed to favor Iran and its supporters.
All this changed with the eruption of the protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an extremely awkward position. Tehran faced Hobson’s choice—two unattractive options. If it chose to stand by its most valuable and longstanding Arab ally, it would be viewed as hypocritical and opportunistic by the masses in the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, if it stood by idly and refrained from supporting the Assad regime, there was no guarantee that if a new government came to power in Damascus it would cultivate close ties with Tehran. Given the circumstances, Iran chose to throw its weight behind the Syrian regime. One senior Iranian official talking about the Arab Spring in the context of the U.S.-Iranian rivalry in the region commented, “Bahrain tripped up the Americans, while Syria tripped us up.” This decision not only tarnished the Islamic Republic’s reputation in the Middle East, but that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which also backed the Syrian government. Moreover, it had far-reaching consequences for Iran’s power and influence in the region as the crisis unfolded in the two years that followed. By 2013, as the conflict in Syria increasingly assumed a sectarian dimension pitting Sunnis against Shi’as in Syria and the Middle East, the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called on all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria against Shi’a Iran and Hezbollah—which he referred to as the “Party of Satan.” Others depicted Shi’as as a greater threat to the Arab world than Israel. The popularity of Iran and Hezbollah, which had peaked in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, reached an unprecedented nadir in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the suppression of the Syrian revolt. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and Hamas became strained by the winter of 2011-2012 when the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Khaled Mashal, left Damascus and declared his support for the Syrian opposition.
Tehran initially hoped that by assisting the Ba’athist regime, Damascus would be able to ride out the crisis within a short time. As a result, Iran staunchly supported Assad’s efforts to crush the protests by providing technical support and expertise to neutralize the opposition. The Iranians provided advice and equipment to the Syrian security forces to help them contain and disperse protests. In addition, they gave guidance and technical assistance on how to monitor and curtail the use of the Internet and mobile phone networks by the opposition. Iran’s security forces had plenty of experience and had learned valuable lessons in this regard since the violent crackdown against the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the disputed Iranian presidential elections of June 2009. At the same time, according to reports, the Iranians disapproved of the clumsy and heavy-handed approach adopted by the Syrian regime to quell the initial protests. Nonetheless, as the revolt transformed into an armed insurrection, specialist personnel and units from the Iranian security apparatus, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, police, and intelligence, were dispatched and deployed in Syria to assist in defeating armed opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army and foreign Sunni Islamist groups. However, their numbers were limited, at most in the hundreds (in the two years that followed), and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed.
By the summer of 2011, as the confrontation in Syria turned into a protracted affair with no end in sight, the Iranian leadership began to worry that it might be on the wrong side of history and had growing doubts about the wisdom of its policy. In order to hedge its bets, Tehran approached some Syrian opposition groups (which were Islamist or did not advocate the toppling of the Assad regime) to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. However, nothing substantive seems to have resulted from these and subsequent overtures in 2012.
As the Syrian crisis continued into the autumn and winter of 2011, it increasingly assumed both a regional and an international dimension. A proxy war began to emerge involving regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arab states began to provide material and financial support to the Syrian opposition. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Iraq, felt compelled to throw their weight fully behind the Assad regime. Tehran saw the Syrian crisis as providing its regional rivals with a golden opportunity to deny it of its most valuable ally, and diminish its power and influence in the Middle East. On the international level, the United States and European Union closed ranks to exert pressure and isolate Damascus. Moscow, which had traditionally been the main supplier of weapons to Syria, continued to ship arms to Damascus. Concomitantly, in the UN Security Council, Russia and China consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that could lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition. (Both Moscow and Beijing were determined to avoid making the mistake they had made with regard to Libya in 2011 when they voted in favor of UNSC Resolution 1973.) Iran and its allies increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Syrian Ba’athist regime could pave the way for the emergence of a new regime in Damascus that would be hostile toward Tehran. Consequently, the Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to fully support Assad by providing arms, oil, and financial aid.
In 2012, when the United Nations and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan and later his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, as special envoys to mediate and resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran welcomed these moves. In general, Tehran is keen to be part of any multilateral initiative aimed at ending the current crisis and to have a role in shaping Syria’s political future. However, the United States and its allies seem determined to exclude Iran from any negotiated settlement. Iran’s interest in a political dialogue and possible diplomatic solution has increased over the past year as the conflict in Syria has dragged on into 2013. Although at present neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition seem to have the ability to deal a knock-out blow, with the passage of time, Bashar al-Assad is losing ground and control of many parts of the country. Large swathes of territory in the north and east of the country are now in the hands of armed groups, including Syrian Kurdish and foreign Islamist militias. Tehran believes that time may not be on the side of the Ba’athist regime, and is looking for options to cut its losses and ensure that irrespective of the outcome of events in Syria, an anti-Iranian government will not come to power in Damascus. Last autumn, Tehran proposed a six-point peace plan to end the crisis. It called for an immediate end to hostilities, the lifting of sanctions, the release of political prisoners, a national dialogue, the formation of a transitional government, and elections for a parliament, constituent assembly, and the presidency. However, the plan was rejected by the Syrian opposition outright since it did not fulfill one of their key pre-conditions, namely, the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. More recently, in February, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi held talks with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, at the global security conference in Munich, Germany to discuss a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Concurrently, Iran has continued to provide military assistance to prop up the Assad regime in order to bolster its chances of survival and to strengthen its bargaining position in the event of a substantive political dialogue with its opponents. Tehran is calculating that if the opposition fails to topple the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it may eventually be amenable at the very least to some form of transitional government that contains some elements from the ancien régime.
It should be emphasized that with the passage of time, Tehran sees a number of advantages to a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis. First, it realizes that the pre-March 2011 political status quo ante cannot be restored. Therefore, it aims to contain the damage and extricate itself, if necessary, in a face-saving manner. Second, it is genuinely concerned that the prolonged fighting in Syria will have a knock-on effect and destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. This could further undermine the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the al-Maliki government in Iraq. Third, in view of its growing regional and international isolation due to its stance on the Syrian conflict and the imposition of Western sanctions because of its nuclear program, Iran would like to demonstrate its importance as a key regional actor involved in helping to attain peace in Syria. Fourth, the Islamic Republic is extremely concerned about the growing sectarian polarization and the possible transformation of the conflict into a regional war pitting Sunnis against Shi’as. This would be detrimental to its efforts to export its revolutionary ideology and achieve Muslim unity. Fifth, Tehran knows that it cannot indefinitely provide financial and material support to the Assad regime due to its own economic woes and foreign sanctions. The Islamic Republic’s oil revenues have decreased markedly, and its economy has begun to contract for the first time since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Sixth, although not considered an ideal solution, Iran may conclude that in the final analysis, it may be more prudent to facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that may not be Tehran’s ally, but at minimum will not be its enemy either.
In the event the current war of attrition leads to the overthrow of Assad, Iran has in recent months started to build up a militia force in Syria known as the People’s Army (Al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi) consisting of regime loyalists, Alawites, and other groups to ensure that the new regime would not be able to assert control over Syria and would become bogged down. According to reports, the aim is to build up a force which is at least 50,000 strong and ideally grows to 100,000 members. Iran wants to have a viable, armed proxy in a post-Assad Syria. In short, Tehran’s objective is to ensure if it cannot have Syria as an ally in the Middle East, others should be prevented from instrumentalizing Syria against Iran in the regional power struggle.
Clearly, the current crisis is the greatest challenge facing the 34-year-old Iranian-Syrian alliance. If the Assad government is toppled, this would represent a major setback for Iran. In fact, it would be the most significant defeat for the clerical regime since at least 1988, when it was forced to end the war with Iraq and sue for peace. Overall, it could be argued that if such an event were to occur, it would be the greatest loss for the Islamic Republic on the regional level since its creation in 1979. It would also constitute a major blow, particularly in terms of the Islamic Republic’s ideological and foreign policy objectives. Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. Furthermore, it has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Since the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Damascus and Tehran have restored Hezbollah as a formidable force with an arsenal of some 40,000 rockets and missiles. The overthrow of the Assad regime could transform the regional situation overnight. Not only would Iran lose its most important Arab ally, but its ability to provide support for Hezbollah and to influence the situation in Lebanon and in the Arab-Israeli arena would be severely curtailed. In addition to its importance in advancing Iranian ideological and foreign policy interests in the Levant, from Tehran’s vantage point, Hezbollah has become a vital actor to safeguard Iranian national security in recent years since the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program emerged. According to Iranian strategic thinking, potential Hezbollah retaliation against Israel serves as a trip wire for U.S. and Israeli military action against Iran.
Although the current strategy of trying to prop up the Assad regime is partially aimed at preserving Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the Levant, the strategy also has several key defensive components. Over the past year, tensions in Iraq have increased markedly, and the confrontation between the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Sunni opposition has intensified. Armed Sunni extremist groups have conducted bold attacks against Iraqi civilians and the vestiges of the Iraqi state. The success of the Syrian opposition in seizing control of areas in the east bordering Iraq and their increasing cooperation with Iraqi Sunni insurgents have contributed to the growing instability in Iraq. This has also alarmed policy makers in Tehran. A poignant example recently was the announcement of the alliance between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria. Consequently, there is now a genuine fear in Tehran that if the Assad regime is toppled, it may have a spillover effect in Iraq. This could lead to greater instability and potentially even to the overthrow of the current government in Baghdad and the rise of a Sunni-dominated regime. Iran sees this possibility as completely unacceptable. An alternative scenario is that the Syrian conflict could fuel Sunni secessionist ambitions in Iraq, and lead to the break-up of the country into Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. This would have major security implications for Iran and could produce enormous internal problems, especially in the Kurdish and Arab-inhabited regions of the country bordering Iraq.
It should also be underscored that Iran’s reading of the situation in Syria has been influenced by both its own internal developments and relations with the West. Since the protests following the disputed presidential elections of 2009, and the decision of the United States and its European allies (starting in 2010) to impose harsh sanctions on Iran, a sense of embattlement and paranoia has taken hold among Tehran’s ruling elites. Any internal opposition or foreign moves that may directly or indirectly threaten either their survival or interests are interpreted as part of a grand strategy or conspiracy to topple the Islamist regime. The failure to resolve differences over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy—most recently during two rounds of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan—and the continuous imposition of Western sanctions have reinforced Iranian perceptions that Washington’s real ultimate goal is regime change in Tehran.
The Iranian leadership has strong suspicions that no matter what it does to allay concerns regarding the nuclear issue, Western sanctions will never again be fully lifted so long as the Islamic Republic continues to exist. As a result, the policies pursued by the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies with regard to the Syrian crisis have increasingly been interpreted as part of a broader plan to dismantle “the axis of resistance” in the Middle East by toppling the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Western moves to shun and isolate Iran have therefore reinforced perceptions among policymakers in Tehran that they must take a stand. Iran sees Syria as the first line of defense against a concerted effort by its regional and extra-regional foes not only to bring about regime change in Damascus and the end of its alliance with Tehran, but as part of a longer-term strategy to isolate and overthrow the Islamic Republic.
At present, Tehran fears the emergence of a crescent of pro-Western (Sunni) regimes stretching from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The nightmare scenario for Iran would be for the Syrian Ba’athist regime to be replaced by a Sunni fundamentalist regime that is staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and closely allied with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, “the mother of all nightmares” for Iran would be if both of the existing regimes in Damascus and Baghdad were toppled and succeeded by governments that are implacably hostile toward Tehran. To date, Iran has done all it can to ensure that Bashar al-Assad will not be toppled by pouring in men, material, and money to bolster his position. In spite of its tremendous efforts and spending billions of dollars to prop up the Syrian regime, the outcome is still unclear. In fact, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a number of politicians and members of parliament (majlis) have expressed disappointment about the results in the past.
In conclusion, to date, the Arab Spring has not translated into a net gain for Iran. While relations between Tehran and the new governments in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis have thawed, normalization, especially with Egypt, remains elusive. This can be attributed in part to the continued political instability in Egypt, but also to the fact that Iran and Egypt have stood on opposite sides of the fence in the Syrian conflict. Their contrasting positions have impeded the political reconciliation process and accentuated the Sunni-Shi’a schism. In addition, Tehran and its regional allies have lost a great deal of the political capital they possessed in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the Assad regime and its brutal suppression of the uprising. There is no doubt that the alliance between Iran and Syria is now at a critical crossroads, and its days may be numbered. Whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: the relationship cannot be restored to its pre-2011 status.
This piece was first published as Viewpoints 35 by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.