Iran’s Evolving Policy on Syria

Garrett Nada

Iran has consistently supported President Bashar Assad since the uprising erupted in March 2011. Yet Iran’s tone on the Syrian crisis has noticeably evolved. Tehran initially subscribed to the official Syrian narrative; it described the protests as insignificant and orchestrated by foreign powers, including the United States. The first shift was visible in August 2011, as escalating dissent spread nationwide. High-ranking Iranian officials began referring to the “legitimate” demands of the Syrian people and the need for political reform.

In a second shift, Iranian officials started calling for a negotiated solution in early 2012. Tehran then formally backed the six-point U.N. plan on March 28, 2012.

But the top political, religious and military leaders have taken widely diverse positions. Some have stressed the need for the regime, Tehran’s longtime ally, to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Others have encouraged solidarity with Assad against “the dirt” of Syria’s enemies.

Still others have called for a combination of the two positions. On July 27, U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee warned against supporting opposition groups in Syria with arms or funds but also pledged support for the six-point U.N. plan. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi hosted his Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, on July 29 in Tehran. Salehi acknowledged the Syrian people’s desire for change, but he also accused Israel and other countries of hatching a “plot” against Damascus.

The following quotes track the evolution in Iranian comments, dating from the crisis onset in spring 2011 through the joint press conference by the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers.

Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign Ministry spokesman, April 12, 2011

“What is happening in Syria is a mischievous act of Westerners, particularly Americans and Zionists…No one should be fooled by this trick that the Americans are playing.”
Mehmanparast, May 10, 2011

“We in no way accept violent confrontation and crackdowns against those who express their demands peacefully…[But] through their media, [Western countries] are trying to exaggerate the limited [opposition] movements and portray them as if they reflect the demands of the majority of the people.”
Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, member of the Assembly of Experts, June 23, 2011

Condemned sending “the national wealth of Iran to Syria and wasting it on the repression of the Syrian people, instead of providing this aid to the Iranian people.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, June 30, 2011

“The essence of the Islamic Awakening in the region is anti-Zionist and anti-U.S. But in the case of Syria, U.S. and Israeli hands are evidently at work.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, August 27, 2011

“The government should answer to the demands of its people, be it Syria, Yemen or other countriesThe people of these nations have legitimate demands, and the governments should answer these demands as soon as possible.”
Ahmed Avaei, member of parliament, early September 2011

“The reality of the matter is that our absolute support for Syria was a wrong policy… The people protesting against the government in that country are religious people, and the protest movement there is a grassroots movement.”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President, September 8, 2011

“Regional nations can assist the Syrian people and government in the implementation of essential reforms and the resolution of their problems.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, January 31, 2012

“The Americans and certain Western countries want to take revenge on Syria for their recent defeats in the region, including Egypt and Tunisia…The main purpose of the U.S. plot in Syria is to deal a blow to the resistance front in the region because Syria is supporting the resistance of Palestine and the Islamic resistance of Lebanon.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran's stance toward Syria is to support any kind of reform that would benefit the country's people and oppose the interference of the United States and its allies in Syria's internal affairs.”
Khamenei, March 29, 2012

“Iran will defend Syria because it supports its policy of resistance against the Zionist regime [Israel], and is strongly opposed to any interference by foreign forces in Syria's internal affairs.”
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman for Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, April 1, 2012

“Iran hopes that President Bashar al Assad …will maintain Syria’s stability and restore peace to the country through executing reforms and preventing foreign interference.”
Ismail Ghaani, deputy head of the IRGC Quds Force, May 28, 2012 (subsequently removed from the Islamic Student News Agency website ISNA)

“Before our presence in Syria, too many people were killed by the opposition but with the physical and non-physical presence of the Islamic republic, big massacres in Syria were prevented.”

Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign Ministry spokesman, May 28, 2012

“We are certain that foreign interference, terrorists and suspicious measures which have targeted the resilient Syrian people are doomed to fail.”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President, May 31, 2012

“It seems unbelievable to me that a government would engage in killing its own people .... [but] I'm not excluding anyone from this responsibility. Any individual who committed these murders is guilty …The people responsible for this massacre must be punished, must be sanctioned.”
Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign Ministry spokesman, July 4, 2012

“Any meeting that excludes the Syrian government and influential regional countries will be futile and any settlement imposed from outside on Syria will not succeed.”
Mohammad Ali Sobhani, former Ambassador to Lebanon, early July, 2012

“The entire world is against Syria and we are standing here defending Syria, a country accused of crimes against humanity. We are not playing this game very well.”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President, July 5, 2012

“The main enemies... are trying to revive their domination of the region and to save the occupying regime from destruction.”
“The Americans are seeking only their interests, and it is the right of the people of the region, including the great Syrian people, to freely decide their own fate and others should not impose their demands on them.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, July 9, 2012

“No ruler is an eternal ruler, so in the case of Mr. Bashar al Assad, by 2014 there are presidential elections in which we will have to let the events take their normal course…We also support this idea whereby the government and the opposition sit down together to find a way out.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, International Affairs advisor to the Supreme Leader, July 13, 2012

“Under existing conditions, they [the United States and its allies] intend to challenge the region by creating crisis in Syria, which is at the frontline [of resistance] against the Zionists. Meanwhile, they want to prevent unity of the Islamic Ummah because the Middle East is the heart of the Muslim Ummah.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister of Foreign Affairs July 15, 2012
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to sit down with the Syrian opposition and invite them to Iran…We are ready to facilitate and provide the conditions for talks between the opposition and the government.”
Ghadanfar Rokn Abadi, Ambassador to Lebanon, July 20, 2012
“Iran will not deviate one iota from its support to the Syrian regime…The latest bombings resemble a powerful paper in Syria's hands…such attacks would open the way for the regime to act firmly with the terrorists, and would give it full powers to tighten its iron grip.”
Ali Larijani, Speaker of parliament, July 22, 2012

“The behavior of the western countries towards Syria needs a board to write on it 'we have reached the era of modern barbarism era'…You [Western states] assassinate, we will harvest its political advantages in the UN Security Council.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, July 23, 2012

“Enemies imagined that they can create a vacuum in the management of the country by explosions in Damascus but the enemies of the Syrian nation have been defeated…and the army is gradually finding supremacy over the armed opposition.” 
“We believe that the opposition groups should reach a compromise with the Syrian government to get out of this situation even though Syria is heading toward calm.”
Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri of the Revolutionary Guards, July 24, 2012

“Soon the soil of Syria will be cleaned of the dirt of the enemy…Yet none of the friends of the Syrian government and the great front of resistance has entered the scene. If this happens, they will strike back hard at the enemy, particularly the hated Arabs.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, July 25, 2012

 “What is going on in Syria is a real war between the front of the hegemonic and the front of the resistance…The resistance front will surely triumph.”
Ali Saeedlou, Vice President for International Affairs, July 25, 2012

Tehran is ready to give its experience and capabilities to its friend and brother nation of Syria.”

Mohammad Reza Rahimi, First Vice President, July 25, 2012

"Given that powers have united to damage the Syrian nation, Iran's stance toward Syria is not changeable -- it will always stand by its Syrian brothers.”
Mohammad-Reza Raouf Sheibani, Ambassador to Syria, July 25, 2012

“The military trend will further complicate and prolong the crisis in Syria and will bear negative and grave consequences for the region, in particular, for the instigators of the crisis.”
Mohammad-Reza Tabesh, member of parliament, late July, 2012

“We must support the government of Syria, which is at the frontline of the struggle against Israel…But we should support it as long as the government of Syria does not treat the people of Syria badly and the rights of the people are not violated.”
Mousa-al-Reza Servati, member of parliament, late July, 2012

“We oppose the West because of the belief that any reform must take place based on the choice of the people and implemented by the people of Syria. People can achieve whatever their wishes through elections.”
Majid Namjou, Minister of Energy, July 26, 2012

“Iran will not abandon support for Damascus under the circumstances that Western countries have united to hatch plots against the Arab country and undermine the security of Muslims in cooperation with terrorists.”
Mohammad Khazaee, U.N. Ambassador, July 27, 2012

“From the beginning, we have supported Mr. Kofi Annan’s plan, and we believe that’s the best way to resolve the issues in Syria…Reform should take place in Syria, some good steps have been so far taken. So therefore the solution is not to support financially or militarily different groups inside Syria and escalate the level in violence in Syria.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, July 29, 2012

It is not appropriate that we compound these problems under the false assumption that if a [political] vacuum is created in Syria and the Syrian government changes, it will easily be replaced by another government. This is wishful thinking and an illusion.”

“We do not deny this fact that the Syrian people, like other nations, have the right to enjoy all civil rights in a free country, but it should be noted that a plot has been hatched against Syria, which is clearly manifested in the stance and views of the Zionist regime against Syria.”


Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.