After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks: Can Russia Shape Those Talks on the Ground?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin remains confident about Russia’s intervention in Syria. He has outlined Russia’s objectives there and is providing the Russian Federation Armed Forces what they need to achieve them. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 calls for talks, but leaves the matter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency open and allows for continued action against ISIS and other Islamic militants. That leaves Putin able to use the forces of Russia and its allies in Syria to help Assad remain in power.

According to a December 18, 2015 New York Times article entitled “After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks,” the UN Security Council, by a vote of 15-0, adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the Syrian civil war. It was reportedly the result of a long term effort of the US and Russia to find common interests to stop the violence in the war-torn country. However, although a plan was agreed upon unanimously on December 18th, sharp differences remain between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. For the US, removing Assad from power in Damascus is a requirement. The resolution makes no mention of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. In truth, what the plan will mean on the ground is uncertain. As US Secretary of State John Kerry stated with humility on December 18th at the UN Security Council, “No one is sitting here today suggesting to anybody that the road ahead is a gilded path. It is complicated. It will remain complicated. But this at least demands that the parties come to the table.”

UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially calls for the following: a ceasefire must be established and formal talks on a political transition must start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Jabhat al-Nusra, are excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, can continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under US supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led. As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to November 18th Syria meeting was essential, but hardly prosaic given its ties to Syria. As a matter of fact, Russia has a congenial relationship with the Assad regime unlike other Permanent Five Members. Russia has been working closely with Iran to provide the Syrian Government with military support. Indeed, Putin went into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. While the administration of US President Barack Obama has been engaged in a desultory effort to remove Assad since 2012, Putin recognized the US would keep working against Assad regime until it fell or ISIS, too strong for the Syrian Opposition to contend with, took control in Syria. Putin has not forgotten the results of the Obama administration’s support of rebels in opposition to Libyan President Muammar el-Gaddafi, a friend of Moscow. Multinational forces under NATO command, mandated to impose a no-fly zone under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, exceeded their mission, destroying pro-Gaddafi forces as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell; he was killed. To Putin, it was a cunning deceit and dark tragedy. He does not want anything similar to occur in Syria.

Long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might establish among themselves common facts, presuppositions, and policies for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to lengthen Assad’s tenure as president. Russia, is a very capable military superpower. Indeed, Russia could shape the situation on the ground by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Deliberate progress is being made toward that goal. A large military offensive, purportedly being organized, may allow Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces to regain control of a large portion of Syrian territory. The Syrian Government might work to “ensure” the political perspectives of local political leaders, administrators, and the civilian population, in reclaimed territory were supportive of Assad. Diplomatic efforts at the UN Talks by Russia and Iran would be conducted in conjunction with the military activity. Perhaps UN Security Council vote, rather than create an agreement for Assad’s removal and transition to a government favorable to the US, EU and some Arab States, may have instead convinced Russia and Iran that shaping events on the ground militarily in Syria is the best way to secure their interests. Principiis obsta (et respice finem). Resist the beginnings (and consider the end). Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched the international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and the possibility for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. He will not become subsumed by Syria. If Russia were to act with more force and increase the pace of its operations in Syria, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would become a decisive factor in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks.

Russia on the Ground in Syria

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, wrote in De Vita Caesarum that Rome’s first emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Augustus Caesar) abhorred haste and rashness in a military commander.  He preferred that actions be taken with an appropriate balance of urgency and diligence. Rushing through to execute tasks often led to mistakes and sustained results are not achieved. Accordingly, one of his favorite sayings was festina lente (hasten slowly). Many in the West complained from the start of operations by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria that they were ill-fated, immediately bogged down, or inappropriately conducted. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” At a December 18, 2015 news conference, Kerry stated in an effusion of sentiment that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were hitting Syrian Opposition groups fighting Assad’s forces and not hitting ISIS forces. Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and possibilities for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. Putin in no way wants support Syrian Opposition forces in their effort against Assad so it would make sense for Putin to pace Russia’s actions against ISIS, to learn the landscape and ensure the Syrian Opposition gained no advantages. To that extent, it should have been expected that he would not hesitate to disrupt the Syrian Opposition’s activities where he could. Regarding costs for the Syria operation, so far, Putin has well-managed them. Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Center for Analyses of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, explained: “All available data show us that the current level of military effort is completely insignificant for the Russian economy and Russian budget.” Senior administration and intelligence officials in the US, in anonymity, agree with that assessment.

Once in Syria, Russia began using many of its latest weapons systems. New systems used have included: the sea-based Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile, launched from surface ships and submarines from as far as 900 miles away from their targets; the air launched KH-101 cruise missile; and, the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter. On December 19, 2015, Reuters quoted Putin as saying: “We see how efficiently our pilots and intelligence agents coordinate their efforts with various kinds of forces—the army, navy, and aviation; how they use the most modern weapons.” However, Putin continued, “I want to stress that these are by far not all of our capabilities,” adding, “We have more military means. And, we will use them—if need be.” Putin seemed to imply that Russia may ramp up the size and speed of its operations in Syria. By acting more robustly and increasing the tempo of its operations, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would certainly be the decisive factor on the ground in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks. Both the ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught organized by Russia and its allies. Seizing the maximum amount of land possible may very well enable the Syrian Government to influence the political landscape thus furthering Putin’s goal of keeping Assad in power. Heartened by the Syrian Armed Forces ability to fight back, some Syrians living in towns and cities reclaimed by their government might find cause to support Assad, lessening the possibility of his removal a bit more. Protectio trahit subjectionem, et subjectio protectionem. (Protection draws allegiance, and allegiance draws protection.)  A Russian Federation Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H Bomber (above) fires a KH-101 air launched cruise missile at a target in Ildib, Syria. By supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria, Russia might shape the situation on the ground there. If a massive offensive is eventually conducted by Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, in territory taken, the Assad regime may try to “ensure” local political leaders and administrators, and local residents were supportive of Assad.

The Importance of Russian-Iranian Cooperation

Per sequar! (Do your part, I will do mine!) Concerning its diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Russian-Iranian military cooperation was decided upon much earlier. An agreement for a joint Russian-Iranian military effort in Syria came into effect in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria to include: IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Hamadani; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hadi Kajbaf; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Reza Khavari; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Mohammad Ali Allahdadi; Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Hamid Mokhtarband; and, IRGC-Quds Force Colonel (Sarhang-e Yekom) Farshad Hasounizadeh.

On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani then took control of the Syria operation, flying often into Damascus. Once the decision on the joint Russian-Iranian effort was made, Suleimani visited Putin and Shoigu in Moscow in July 2015. He outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces, but also explained time remained to reclaim the initiative. Putin decided that it was time to act. Suleimani took on a central role in the coordination of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian activities on the ground. Reportedly, Suleimani was injured by a TOW missile fired by Syrian Opposition rebels on November 12, 2015. In diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on November 23, 2015 pictured above. Russia and Iran will pursue a singular policy designed to benefit Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

Military Action

According to Russian defense and military officials, Russia’s airstrikes have targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck throwing the process of directing ISIS units into confusion. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS positions in front of the Russian allies have been degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. Presumably they will provide close air support for an eventual ground offensive by Russia and its allies. (Ground forces utilized would primarily be Syrian and Iranian though.) Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets have conducted almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. Russia has also conducted night strikes with damage assessment by drones.

Reportedly, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces believe the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. It would take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Allawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet then Russian Federation Navy port that is important to naval operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies might turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could push farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies may press eastward. A key objective would be to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Another key objective would be to push beyond Aleppo to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, which is the official capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Moving that far out, some believe Russia may seek to co-opt the Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) to help assist in the offensive. Russia has begun to increase the intensity of its attacks in all of the locations mentioned. Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers have primarily been used on command posts, stores of weapons, oil products, and workshops where weapons for suicide bombers are made that are situated along prospective axes of advance of Russia and its allies. Bunker busting BETAB-500 bombs have been dropped from Su-34s near Raqqa with the goal of eliminating command posts along with underground storage facilities for explosives and munitions. Large numbers of ISIS fighters have been eliminated due to such strikes. The above map from the renowned Institute for the Study of War reveals the general pattern of Russian airstrikes and cruise missile strikes in Syria. Both ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught by Russia and its allies. Putin likely wants pro-Assad forces to take the maximum amount of land possible west and north in “Useful Syria” and eastward in Raqqa and Palmyra, to broaden the Assad regime’s area of control and political influence.

To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s were first delivered to the Syrian Republican Guards 4th Armored Division, commanded by Assad’s younger brother, General Ali Maher Assad. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are mostly Russian T-72s which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters. The pace of the deliveries will be determined by the time needed for Russian instructors to train Syrian tank crews on the T-90. Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems have also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment includes: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Russia and its allies have placed a steady onslaught of fire from those systems and from tanks on their opponents’ positions daily. If a major ground offensive gets underway, artillery attacks will surely intensify. Quae non prosunt singular multa iuvant. (What alone is not useful helps when accumulated.) To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters.

A Future Syrian-Iranian Fretwork

With the intermeshing of Iranian forces with the Syrian Armed Forces and the National Defense Front, a picture emerges of what Syrian Armed Forces and what Syrian communities along the axis of the Iranian-Syrian ground attack might look like in a year. One might recall what occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina once the war ended in 1995. Particularly after 1994, members of the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, Iranian Army and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, referred to as “volunteers,” were folded into the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, a few thousand Iranians became part of the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power. The Iranian troops settled in many towns and cities in the Muslim-Croat Federation. The extraction of foreign fighters from the postwar Bosnian Federation Armija, and the Federation in general, was mandated by the national government in Sarajevo about a decade after the war due to international pressure. In Syria, the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security will do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents.

The Assad regime likely has a limited degree of influence within the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win. Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. They likely believe that they can cope with that issue in the coming UN Talks. If Assad’s presidency is not viewed as legitimate by the international community following an election, due to any administrative difficulties that may arise or due to actions by the Assad regime or its allies on the ground, the impact on Assad would be minimal. By now, Assad has become inured to the hardship caused by UN sanctions and isolation stemming from the international community’s scorn. Moreover, Assad is, albeit, the “ward” of Russia and Iran. If problems arise, they will cover him. If Russia and its allies can gain control of a good portion of Syria, future threats of an externally orchestrated regime change by force will be precluded. Amicus certus in re incerta. (A sure friend in an unsure matter.) Expectations for talks established under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 may not be based in reality. The picture painted at the UN Security Council was of a factionalized, difficult Syrian Opposition that has suddenly become homogenized. Putin anticipates nothing satisfying from the UN Talks. He sees there is a danger that Russia’s interests will not be served. Rather than wait to be disappointed, Putin will likely seize the opportunity to shape the situation Syria to meet Russia’s interests and those of Tehran and Damascus.

The Way Forward

Fantasies of a future that is desired can become a substitute for reality. Somehow, those on the UN Security Council have anesthetized their consciences to the realities, difficulties, of working with the Syrian Opposition Movement. Indeed, things antecedent have been forgotten. The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, very rapidly, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered the entire taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. Now, new talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The UN Security Council now paints a picture of a Syrian Opposition that has become homogenized and is ready for talks. One should anticipate a future that is reality based. Perhaps what the UN Security Council is waiting for regarding the talks will not be worth waiting for. Sero venientibus ossa! (Those who are late get the bones!)

The art that moves Putin’s mind is not easily deciphered. His intuition likely tells him there will be plenty of debate and confusion at the UN Talks. Yet, he is likely more concerned that the process will not serve Russia’s interests. Putin will not standby for that and will try in advance of UN monitored elections to shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests and those of Iran and the Assad regime. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, offensive and defensive actions by the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition and Russia can continue. For Putin, that means Russia and its allies will be able to act “unimpeded” on the ground. Russia’s moves in Syria will not bar it from working on the talks alongside the other Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council. Rather, Russia will be involved fully. With matters such as Libya in mind, its’ diplomats will narrowly focus on what best suits Russia and its allies. If Putin gets his way, there will be little left in Syria for the US to be satisfied with. The drama of the Obama administration’s failed interaction with Putin is nearly played out as the end of its second term nears. Kremlin observers allege Putin feels the administration has been marked by weakness. He will try to take advantage of the situation while it lasts.

Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts

According to a September 23, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Netanyahu Is Said to View Iran Deal as a Possible Trap,” Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu intended to step up his effort to blunt a diplomatic offensive by Iran, and planned to warn the UN that a nuclear deal with Iran could be a trap similar to the one set by North Korea eight years ago.  The White House reportedly sought to allay the fears of Israeli officials, assuring them that US President Barack Obama will judge Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by his actions, not his words, and that the US is not planning to prematurely ease the economic sanctions against Iran that have hurt Iran’s economy.  However, Rouhani’s words and actions may not be the key ones for the Obama administration to watch in Iran.  Attention certainly must be given to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the source of Rouhani’s authority to act.  Khamenei’s decisions, often presented in public statements, determine the course of Iran’s foreign and defense policy.  Yet, the official, whose position and history of engaging in security activities of great consequence to Iran makes him certainly worthy of attention from the US and its Western partners, is Iran’s new Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan.

Although Rouhani served as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Dehghan, until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as Secretary of the Political, Defense, and Security Committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  The  Expediency Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  The Expediency Council is often called the “voice” of the Iranian Revolution.  Given the power and prominence the Council’s members have in Iran’s government, it seemed a rather peculiar for an official to leave such a venerable post to accept a cabinet position.

Rouhani has expressed the desire to engage in a dialogue with the US and its Western partners, hoping to tackle issues that have led to Iran’s international isolation and economic pressure, and especially reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. To some degree, it has already been initiated with US through an exchange of messages between Obama and Rouhani.  Washington and Western capitals have been eager to accept the opportunity to revolve the nuclear issue might be at hand and an acceptable entreaty could be drawn.  Yet, Rouhani’s role may only be one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders may very likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, under the auspices of Dehghan and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), away from Rouhani’s purview, they would secretly continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. Turning back now, after getting so close may very likely be viewed by Iran’s leaders as counterproductive and counterintuitive.   If this is truly the case, rather than focus on Rouhani’s words and deeds, Dehghan, now in full control of the daily activities of Iran’s military forces, would be the one to watch as a better way to discern how Iran is actually proceeding on the nuclear issue.

Dehghan’s Reputation For Handling Iran’s Most Difficult Tasks

Dehghan was first discussed by greatcharlie.com in the August 23, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles.”  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran and former acting IRGC commander of Isfahan.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives, along with their leader, Imad Mughniyah, the commander of Hezbollah’s military-wing, to engage in martyrdom operations against the US Marine Corps barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  Later Dehghan would become commander of District 1 of Sarallah and Sarallah Operations Headquarters, commander of the IRGC Air Force, commander of the IRGC Air Force, acting chairman of the joint headquarters of the IRGC, and general manager of the Cooperatives Foundation of the IRGC.  As an IRGC commander, Dehghan was a fearless, devout and dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic.  What he undoubtedly did best on the Expediency Council was to advise Khamenei on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military as a means to accomplish its political goals in the face of US and Western opposition.  Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his skills as an administrator were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was most likely selected in order to take command of the day to day activities of Iran’s fighting forces and to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone with his experience, capabilities, and reliability could be counted upon to direct.

“Heroic Flexibility” and Dehghan’s Likely Marching Orders on the Nuclear Issue

Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC,  is inextricably tied to that organization.  In one of the earliest photos of Dehghan while Defense Minister, he is appears in his IRGC uniform, sitting with other cabinet members in a meeting with Khamenei.  Dehghan has been a conspicuously quiet member of Rouhani’s cabinet, virtually absent in the media and rarely providing public statements or holding press conferences.  This is rather unusual particularly since he is responsible for Iran’s military forces.  In Iran, top commanders typically are highly visible, very often making very passionate declarations of their determination to defend Iran’s interests.  Such avowals by military officials are an accepted way to assure the Iranian people that the country can promote and protect its interests, and deter opponents from attacks against it.  During his confirmation process for defense minister, Dehghan explained to the Parliament that he wanted to engage in soft power enhancement, by means of increased visibility and promote the image of the armed forces.  Dehghan apparently did not mean to include himself in that effort.  The reticent Dehghan even has a lower profile than Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s secretive, elite IRGC unit, the Quds Force.

Given his decades of devotion to the IRGC, there can be no doubt that precious little difference between Dehghan’s views and those espoused by the organization.  To that extent, Dehghan would most likely agree with an IRGC statement (translated into English in a September 22, 2013 article in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News), which explained the IRGC “would support initiatives that were in line with national interests and strategies set forth by the theocratic leader and highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”  According to this, Dehghan and the commanders of the 125,000 IRGC force who are hand-picked by Khamenei, will act only under the concept and intent proffered by Supreme Leader.

A key concept recently proclaimed by Khamenei on the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy is “heroic flexibility.”  The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan.  As is characteristic of Dehghan, but perhaps unusual for a Defense Minister, he has not offered his own interpretation of heroic flexibility and how it would guide his ministry’s activities.  Yet, as understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western partners, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, translated into English and published by Arash Karami on the blog, Iran Pulse, “heroic inflexibility is an exalted and invaluable concept fully within the goals of the Islamic Republic.”  He further explained the concept meant “in no way would Iran retreat from fundamental lines and national and vital interests and this right is something that without [sic] concessions can be exchanged.”  That essentially means that only on issues in which Iran had an interest but no rights, could Iranian concessions be negotiated.  He went on to state: “Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced.”  Specifically on the nuclear issue, Salami explained: “For instance, the right to have peaceful nuclear energy according to the criteria that has been secured for us, and this right cannot be modified and there is no flexibility on it, however, within this framework a political flexibility as a tactic is acceptable because we do not want to create a dead end in solving the political issue.”  Therefore, for the IRGC on the nuclear issue, there is no possibility of Iranian concessions, however, given the possibility that the US and its Western partners, themselves, might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise, talks must take place to give them a chance to do so.

An appraisal to this using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility may be that Iran needs to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners. Under that approach, Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take the path of diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Dehghan and elements of the IRGC would take a path to accomplish the goals set for Iran’s nuclear energy program.  Placing the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program in Dehghan’s purview is reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities include promoting Iran’s defense industry capabilities in meeting strategic requirements, placing an emphasis on passive defense in compliance with the requirements of development projects and land use planning, and linking knowledge, power, and strategy in industry and Defense Ministry missions.  Assuredly, Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots are currently guided by Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, under the IRGC’s interpretation of it.  That being the case, it is very likely they are presently engaged in a dual-track approach.  A statement provided by the IRGC appears to provide a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declares: “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of WH officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction.”  This quote would indicate that IRGC thinking is influenced by what its commanders view were past negative interactions with the West, and a dual-track approach will assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

What Would Convince the IRGC That a Dual-Track Approach Would Work?

When Dehghan was a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, he was already part of the process by which Iran developed a way to quietly take steps in opposition to the US in order to reach its goals.  Long before Khamenei’s declaration of his heroic flexibility concept, approaches and methods, derived from ideas very similar to his idea, were already being on Syria and on the nuclear issue.  As discussed in the August 3, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in the West, But Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” initially, the Iranians consider in advance how its opponents might attempt to defeat or disrupt US efforts.  Plans are rapidly implemented to avoid detection and a possible response.  Every moment of time is viewed in itself as an opportunity to shape a situation.  This is how the initial Quds Force commander in Syria, IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shateri, operated with all Iranian forces from 2011 until his death there in 2013.  He managed the rapid deployment of Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and Iraqi shi’a militiamen into Syria, and shaped-up Syrian Armed Forces as needed, quickly trained, and armed the Syrian shabiha or paramilitaries and organized them into a fighting force, the National Defense Front.  IRGC Major General Qassem Suleimani, who took over for Shateri as Iran’s commander in Syria, has taken the same tact.  Political leaders and policymakers in the US are perceived in Tehran as willing to make the assumption that every situation in foreign policy can be favorably altered with money or the application of military force later.  Delays in proposed and threatened military action would usually be due to some domestic political consideration such as presidential elections and mid-term Congressional elections  Concerning the nuclear issue, the same success using this approach can be observed.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, progress continued to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iran is aware that once a sufficient level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle, and a new situation immediately exists.  At that point, Iran may calculate that further sanctions or threats of action against Iran, except among some of its neighbors, would unlikely be viewed as constructive or acceptable internationally.  Further, Iran, again, would know that it would be less likely to face any consequences if that type of achievement occurs when for example, mid-term elections next year, have greater meaning to US political leaders.

Events surrounding the US response to the Assad regime’s August 21, 2013, use of chemical weapons provide the latest yardstick by which Iran can measure the prospect for attaining its goals under Khamenei’s heroic flexibility concept.  US delays left the door open for Assad to secure his interests.  Obama appeared to agonize over the decision to take military action and delayed doing so.  The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, indicated he was reluctant to take action, uncertain as to its possible impact upon the Syrian civil war’s outcome.  The majority of the US Congress prepared to withhold their support for military action, concerned mostly by the possibility that as a consequence, rogue Islamic militants would be in a better position on the ground.  While that transpired, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad managed, through a Russian proposal, to avoid military action for the time being, by declaring its chemical stockpiles, surrendering them for destruction to the UN, and becoming a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Assad even managed to acquire the spotlight on the world stage.  He even received praise from some states for coming clean about chemical stockpile, while never confessing to carrying out the gas attacks.

Assessment

Iran is still a long way from getting the US and its Western partners to compromise.  For Iran, such demands would mean more than just modifying its program, but keeping it intact.  For Iran, compromise may actually equate to an act of surrender.  Iran would most likely be required to: cease all enrichment of uranium and agree to the removal of all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.  The request itself would come to Khamenei and other with seniority in the Iranian government as an effort to humiliate the Islamic Republic.

The US and its Western partners have been impressed and inspired by Rouhani’s words and his deeds so far.  Small steps have been taken by the US and Iran to build confidence and trust.  However, the relationship between the two sides has been less than congenial for some time.  The ease at which Rouhani has approached the entire matter perhaps should have been cause for immediate pause. Focusing on his efforts avoids the need for officials in Washington and other Western capitals to look more in-depth at what the Iranians are doing despite claims of being vigilant.  Yet, as discussed here, whether Rouhani very efficiently and effectively pursues a peaceful solution, or falters, may not be relevant in the long run.  Potentially, his efforts may be overcome by Dehghan’s effort to reach the goals of the nuclear energy program.  Iran is so close to breakout capacity at this point that it perhaps would make little sense to turn back.  If not careful, the US and its Western partners may find the next step will not require deciding whether Iran’s nuclear program can continue.  Instead, the next step might actually require deciding on whether a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran is something that they can accept.

The Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hossein Dehghan