Syria and Chemical Weapons: Iran’s Dilemma

10 Sep, 2013    ·   4111

Shresht Jain examines how Rouhani is likely respond to American and Iranian expectations in dealing with Syria

Shresht Jain
Shresht Jain
Research Intern

As Hassan Rouhani takes office and comes face to face with Iran’s myriad domestic and foreign challenges, the recent crisis in Syria has put him in a state of quandary. On one hand, hardliners in Iran have openly criticised the US’ decision to carry out an outright attack on Syria post the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, in an effort to reduce sanctions against Iran and create trust, Rouhani is expected to demonstrate a softer side to his interlocutors, particularly the US.

While strongly condemning the use of chemical weapons, Rouhani is being careful not to explicitly tie Iran to the Assad regime. The key question is to what extent can Rouhani go so as to maintain or not damage his moderate and reformist image in the West and elsewhere?

Tackling the ‘Hard-Line’
Iran's ruling mullahs, Syria's main ally in the region, view the survival of the Assad regime as important to their aims. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a stalwart supporter of the Assad regime, which he sees as the frontline resistance against the Israel-US combine. Similarly, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have an even stronger interest in supporting Assad and ignoring his alleged use of chemical weapons. A chorus of Revolutionary Guard commanders have issued dire daily warnings that US strikes on Syria would result in a conflict engulfing the whole region - implying retaliation against Israel, presumably by Iran's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. They are poised to return Iran to the same old posture of defiance if the president's message of moderation falls on deaf ears abroad.

However, there is general fear among the hardliners and the moderates in Iran that retaliation against the US will leave Iran with additional sanctions. Also, it will add to already bitter relations not only with Israel but also the Arab states allied with the US such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan.

Rouhani’s centrist approach of constructing a middle ground to cater to country’s economic, political and security problems will benefit Iran in the short-run. Therefore, this suggests that the Iranian political establishment, including Khamenei and the Guards, will give Rouhani enough elbowroom on the same stage as US and its accomplices.

Living up to Expectations
It is all very well and good for Rouhani to describe himself as a moderate and to speak about greater engagement with the West, but for such words to be believable, they must be supported with specific actions. He understands that if Iran gets itself involved against US intervention, then he will be inviting severe criticism.

In order to qualify as an ‘appeaser’ to the West as well as the hardliners in Iran, Rouhani has played it safe so far. First, by varying his views from the hardliners - he agreed upon the use of chemical weapons as ‘impermissible’, and at the same time, opposed intervention in Syria.

Second, he is keen on developing a ‘logical relationship’ with the West on nuclear issues, given the depths of mutual mistrust between the two countries, in a manner that caters to some extent to the expectations of both the US and Iran’s domestic constituents. In the past, he has openly declared that improved relations with the US allowed Iran to complete its nuclear infrastructure even while negotiating

Third, Rouhani's success will depend on how he rescues Iran's ailing economy; he understands that Iran’s economic stability is impracticable without sanctions relief. If he allows Syria to spoil Iran’s nuclear negotiations, his presidency will falter just months after it began.

Will Rouhani Walk the Talk?
Given the critical state of the Iranian economy, the polarised civil and political society of Iran, and the eagerness of a large number of Iranian natives for change, if Rouhani fails to show political courage and the will to deliver his campaign promises, he will again fall in the category of ‘powerless presidents’ unequipped to make progress. In this context, two points deserve attention.

First, Rouhani perhaps does not restrict the utilisation of chemical weapons out of a feeling of religious or ethical commitment – his first concern may be the investments made by the Islamic Republic, and the suffering of the Syrian people may be considered collateral damage. Second, Rouhani desires a controlled conflict in Syria; a trigger perhaps to show Iran as an important regional player. But his strategy of ‘reason and moderation’ could easily succumb to regional and domestic demands of going anti-US, and for this to not happen he will have to strike the right balance between domestic politics and Iran’s international relations, particularly with the US.