Iran: Rafsanjani signals wavering in long-standing support for Syria

Former president blames Assad for chemical weapons attack, setting up a clash with hardliners in Islamic republic – analysis

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 79, has been written off more than most. But the former president and head of the expediency council remains an astute operator, and my guess is that he has chosen his ground carefully in calling for a reappraisal of Iran’s unblinking support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In saying Assad’s forces were responsible for using chemicals weapons in Damascus in an attack on 21 August, Rafsanjani has surely judged this a good issue for the first serious clash between pragmatists and more “hardline” forces since Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani ally, took over as president a month ago.

While a clash was inevitable sooner or later – and while Rouhani still has the aura of June’s overwhelming election victory – it has arrived quickly, and reflects how delicate a time it is in the Middle East as the United States ponders its first direct military involvement in the Syrian war.

The public argument within Iran’s political class reflects a wider disagreement in Tehran over regional policy and the prospect of talks with Washington about the nuclear programme. There are many in Tehran who would love to undermine Rouhani’s calls for dialogue as means of reaching a compromise over the nuclear programme and reducing region-wide tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims being brought to boiling point by violent chaos in Syria.

Whatever Iran’s longstanding alliance with Assad and whatever the imperatives of maintaining logistical support to Hezbollah, Iran has a strong public policy of opposition to chemical weapons. The deaths of 20,000 Iranian soldiers and the continuing suffering of around 100,000 Iranians from the use of chemicals by Iraq during the 1980-88 war are well known in the country. They are often highlighted on state television.

And while Iran’s link to Assad remains strategic, the conflict is clearly worsening relations with Sunni Arab states. Shia are deeply aware – it is intrinsic to the origins of the faith – of their minority status. Takiyya, the doctrine that holds that beliefs can be disguised in certain circumstances in order to protect the faithful from danger, came about because the Shia cannot win any all-out conflict.

The calculation of the pragmatists is surely that the longer the Syria war lasts, the greater the prospect that the fall of Assad. This would at the very least leave Tehran facing a new regime in Damascus, from which it and Hezbollah are deeply alienated, or perhaps a mess with little of a regime to speak of.

Violence in the region has proved deeply unpredictable. Think of Russia’s 1979-89 war in Afghanistan, of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, of 9/11, of Hezbollah’s action in Beirut in 2008. Syria could produce even greater genies that cannot be replaced in any bottle.

In Beirut, a friend told me of “whole Syrian families glad to find a branch of a tree on the airport road where they can shelter”. Many Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria to escape Sunni sectarian “cleansing” have returned to face uncertainties in their homeland, and some reports say 150,000 Syrian Christians fleeing Sunni violence are under effective siege in a “valley of Christians” in the west. These are the lucky ones.

Rafsanjani’s speech reflects a view that Iran should work for a diplomatic compromise. He broke from earlier claims from officials including Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, and Abbas Araghchi, then foreign ministry spokesman, that rebels and not the Assad regime had used the chemicals. Rafsanjani’s speech also acknowledged the weaknesses of Iran’s position – especially in being unable to sell, or to receive payments for, oil. This was a brave move, as it carries that risk that some in Washington will argue once again that with Iran “weakening”, confrontation and force can produce a new dawn for pax Americana in the region.

It is hard not to think Rafsanjani is acting as a stalking horse for the president. But even Rouhani, in condemning the use of chemical weapons and calling for international action, did not attribute culpability to either side. And in changing tack after initial comments, Zarif argued that with “no proof” that the Syrian government was responsible, culpability should be established internationally before any action taken. Rafsanjani has led from the front.

One western diplomat told me back in February that the outlines of a Syrian agreement, tied in to a wider regional settlement, were apparent, even though the political difficulties in achieving them were acute.

“Everybody’s had to go with the Shia-majority dominance of Iraq, and in Syria, we are prepared to accept similar logic,” he said. And if this were to be the outcome, he continued, it would be better achieved round a table than through unpredictable violence. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, he argued, needed to front a deal, backed by the US and Russia, that would accept majority Sunni rule in Syria with minority rights, and Shia-rule in Iraq with minority rights. But even then, the diplomat was not optimistic. “The stars are not aligned to allow that to happen,” he said.

The effects of US strikes on possibilities for diplomacy are unknown, and yet the diplomatic doors remain slightly ajar. There was considerable speculation in Tehran at the end of August that a visit by Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the leader of Oman, was intended to help start low-profile talks between Iran and the US. The daily Khorasan reported the Sultan had brought a proposal for Iran to be readmitted to the international money-transfer system Swift if it reduced uranium enrichment. And this came after the visit of Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary general and former senior US diplomat and ex-Lebanon ambassador, ostensibly to discuss the UN interest in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon.

The “leaking” of details of the Qaboos visit – possibly by conservative elements opposed to talks with the US – may have reflected the disagreements within Iranian politics. The visit, or indeed the leak itself, may have prompted Rafsanjani’s intervention over chemical weapons.

“One cannot be sure of anything,” an analyst in Tehran said. “Once the first Tomahawk missile takes flight, everybody is in the dark as to what happens next. Curiously in all this the collective political establishment of the West too, seems to be viewing the coming crisis like a deer caught in the headlights. We will have to wait and see what the next two weeks or so will bring: war or the greatest political stepping back from the brink of war the world will have ever seen the Americans take.”

The pragmatists in Tehran may be judging that Syria is taking the region in a direction where pragmatism will be submerged – “burned” would be a better word – by militarists and those on all sides who blame others for everything. If so, then Rafsanjani is telling pragmatists in Washington and Europe and the Sunni Arab establishment that there are those in Iran who want to talk. Rouhani and Rafsanjani await a response. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds