The New York Times reported on June 30th that Iran’s president-elect Hassan Rouhani said he will engage the West and appeal for more moderation in Iran’s foreign policy. His statement supports the initial sense in the West following his June 14th election victory that a comprehensive compromise could be reached between the US and Iran. However, it appears instead that US-Iran relations are headed into a dangerous and difficult period over Syria. Iran has placed its troops in Syria and has supported Hezbollah’s operations there. The US, EU, and Arab states have pledged to counter Iran’s presence in Syria by arming the Syrian opposition forces. Actions by US sponsored Syrian opposition forces or any direct military action against Syria by the US, EU, and Arab states have often “subtly,” and occasionally strongly. threatened, may harm those Iranian troops. As the situation grows worse, the administration of US President Barack Obama’s chances diminish for engaging in talks with Iran’s new president to create outcomes consistent with its goals on the Iranian nuclear issue, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, security and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, or human rights issues.
As the member of greatcharlie.com who went into Iran during the period of Hassan Rouhani’s tenure as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and met with members of that organization, my colleagues urged me to weigh-in with a few insights on how Hassan Rouhani may perceive events occurring in Syria. Profound predictions on Rouhani’s decision making will not be presented here. Instead, some reflections are offered on Rouhani’s background that may help shed light on his thinking on the Syrian issue.
The most immediate insight that comes to mind is that Rouhani, and his advisers, will not take office with a mind to acquiesce to the wishes of foreign powers. He and his colleagues view themselves first and foremost as Iranian patriots. That does not mean he has a militarized worldview, as some analysts have said of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the supreme leader of Iran, or that his decisions will be reactionary, colored by revolutionary zeal. As the June 30th, New York Times report confirms, Rouhani is astute enough to know he must engage with the West on a variety of issues in a pragmatic way. He undoubtedly recognizes the dangers in doing so. Looking at world from Tehran, it unlikely appears to Rouhani that the US government is trying to do much good for its opponents. It would therefore be unlikely that the US would be willing to do to much for Iran. Examples of “difficulties” opponents have faced include: the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime (albeit a sworn enemy of Iran) with Operation Iraqi Freedom as a result of a “mistaken” WMD claim; the unseemly killing of Colonel Muamar el-Qaddafi and the demise of his Libyan regime through NATO and Arab state support of rebels with Operation Unified Protector while Quaddafi was seeking ways, albeit awkwardly, to approach the West. Presently in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is being asked, diplomatically, to negotiate the removal of his own regime even though Assad has indicated that he was to remain in power until 2014 elections. His regimes’s removal will result in the elimination of Iran’s closest Middle East ally, and Iran would stand alone. Indeed, Rouhani may sense that there is little hope that acting in concert with the US on Syria will lead to some beneficial outcome for Iran.
Further, Rouhani also very likely recalls that while he was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, overtures to the US made by President Seyed Mohammad Khatami were rebuffed. Those overtures included placing Iran’s nuclear energy program on the table for negotiation and proposing the creation of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. Then of course, there were statements calling Iran part of an “Axis of Evil” and threats of regime change, which likely left scar tissue on Rouhani. Note that it was also during Rouhani’s tenure that Iranian rocket forces received a tremendous boost in capability with Russian support. Iran placed a satellite into orbit. Iran was then reaching the point where it could launch a Shahab rocket armed with a conventional warhead as far as Paris, France. It was Rouhani’s discussions in Moscow that eventually led to the Russian government’s statement that unless there was evidence of a military program, Iran was free to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.
Thinking on military affairs on the Supreme National Security Council, at the time of Rouhani’s tenure as secretary, was influenced by two conflicts, the Imposed War, (Iran-Iraq War) 1980-1988 and the Bosnian War, 1992-1995. During the Imposed War, Iran’s military, crippled by sanctions that starved it of needed spare parts and upgrades, demonstrated its dedication to Holy Defense through astonishing sacrifices on the battlefield. In Bosnia, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other Iranian security elements such as the Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security operated successfully and demonstrated Iran’s ability to project force away from its territory in support of its interests and work in concert with allies to airlift of arms supplies to its allies. In Syria, Iran has again projected significant force in support of an ally and its interests. While the US, EU, and Arab states debated and hesitated on Syria from 2011 to 2013, Iran, as well as Russia, and Hezbollah, stole a march on them by providing both arms and nonlethal support of significant quality and quantity to the Assad regime which had been sanctioned and was coping with an arms embargo. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel also went into Syria in large numbers. It is very likely that the Bosnia experience has served to guide the current Iranian approach to Syria, and would continue to do so under Rouhani’s leadership. Interestingly, Russian support of the Assad regime and its allies, has made Iran’s approach more viable than it would have been if Iran had acted unilaterally. Together, Russia, Iran, and China have provided the Assad regime with over $500 million in aid.
With Iran “all in” on Syria, it will do whatever necessary to win. If Rouhani is called upon to lead Iran to victory, he will not shy away from the task. Rouhani’s hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bequeathed a tense situation to his successor. Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president was marked by his extreme rhetoric concerning Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq, Afghanistan, and what many believed was Iran’s sponsorship of assassination plots worldwide. His comments concerning Israel’s right to exist and claims that the Nazi Holocaust never occurred established him worldwide as something akin to the Paula Deen of the Iranian political leadership. All of this was compounded by his administration’s violent crackdown political dissenters and protesters following Iran’s 2009 presidential election.
Rouhani is not being subjected to demonization by critics in Washington, Europe, and the Middle East. Nevertheless, the continued specious portrayal of him as an Iranian leader absolutely willing to compromise on Iranian security and its right to pursue a nuclear program will not serve him well politically. As the situation in Syria continues to ratchet up, Rouhani may need to take a hard line once in office to defeat the perception that he is too soft on the West. That would make taking small forward steps and confidence building measures, the preferred way for the Obama administration to proceed with the incoming Iranian president, all the more difficult and less effective. Yet, perhaps hope can be drawn from the coda of found in the statement of US Secretary of State John Kerry following the Friends of Syria meeting in Doha, Qatar. Kerry after explaining the group vowed to end the imbalance on the ground in Syria, indicated that there was a desire to find a political settlement on Syria. It just may be that the key to putting a new relationship Rouhani and Iran on the right track is to find a secure and sustainable peace in Syria. There is still time for another strong push for peace. Rouhani does not take office until August 3rd.