Zarif’s “Meet the Press” Interview Offers Insight into His Thinking on the Nuclear Issue; US Critics Responded Harshly

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose ministry has been Iran’s lead agency on the nuclear negotiations, would like to see a final agreement reached with the P5+1 countries.  Yet, he knows constructing a final deal would require a transformation in thinking among all parties at this late stage.  Given that, a final deal appears less likely.

On the July 13, 2014 episode of NBC News “Meet the Press”, a US Sunday morning news program hosted by David Gregory, a special feature presented was a recording of Gregory’s earlier interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Vienna. Presented in a truncated manner, the taped interview covered an array of topics including Iraq, Syria, and why Iran wants an extensive nuclear capacity and whether it wants a nuclear bomb. Afterward on the program, Gregory asked a bipartisan guest panel of both Republican and Democratic political commentators to critique Zarif’s statements. Representing the Republican perspective was former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. The Democrats present were former Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press. With a synoptic view, the commentators rejected Zarif’s statements with harsh remarks, expressing considerable mistrust over Iran’s intentions. They viewed Zarif’s statements as unhelpful, and highlighted what they felt was his shortsightedness and equivocation. However, the commentators’ examinations of Zarif’s statements were quite superficial. Their accusations that Zarif was insincere and that the Iranians were untrustworthy were already pretty well-worn.

It was initially difficult to fathom why Zarif would make the effort to provide an interview for the mainstream US news media when the nuclear negotiations were at a critical point. The issues surrounding the negotiations are not simple. Zarif has articulated Iran’s positions superbly. Perhaps he wanted to share insights to impact views of the negotiations in the US. Yet, the “Meet the Press” interview format did not allow him to truly delve into the matter. He could only touch the surface of important aspects. The interview turned into a shallow entrapment for Zarif. Heightened skepticism could have been expected from the commentators given the current uncertainty over where the nuclear negotiations are headed and the history of uncongenial relations between the US and Iran since 1979. However, Zarif’s remarks should have been looked at beyond the surface. Their value could be revealed only through a deeper, profound consideration of them.

Zarif’s Remarks

Among his most noteworthy comments, Zarif explained: “I think what we have said should give confidence to people that were not looking for nuclear weapons. We have said that our entire nuclear energy program can fit in a very clear and well defined picture. That is, we want to produce fuel for our own nuclear reactor. Nuclear power reactor! And we have a contract that provides us fuel for that reactor. But that contract expires in seven or eight years.”

Gregory asked Zarif how he “could not see the benefit in having a nuclear weapon, particularly as a Shi’a state surrounded by Sunni states, many of whom are your enemies.” Zarif responded by saying such calculations were wrong. He explained: “In fact, we need to go out of our way in order to convince our neighbors that we want to live in peace and tranquility with them, because the politics of geography, the fact that we’re bigger, the fact that we’re stronger, the we’re more populous, the fact that we have a [sic] better technology, the fact that our human resources is [sic] by far more developed than most of our neighbors. All of these provide us with inherent areas of strength that we don’t need to augment with other capabilities.”

Additionally, Zarif stated: “In fact, I believe nuclear weapons reduces countries’ influence in our region. It doesn’t help anybody.” “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security. Through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over is simply mad.” “And that is why this mentality that nuclear weapons makes anybody safe. Have they made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.”

The Political Commentators’ Criticisms

The responses of the political commentators on Zarif’s remarks were wholly negative. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal commented that the Iranian nuclear issue is “a good example of bipartisanship in Congress . . . both in the Senate and in the House. Democrats and Republicans, they don’t want to go backwards. They want tougher sanctions.” Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press commented, “I think anyone [sic] on the globe thinks that we don’t need more nuclear states in general. And we are certainly don’t need this state [Iran] which has shown itself to be responsive. The interview you heard earlier today shows how irrational the thinking is.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum stated “we were laughing at him [Zarif] saying, “He must have the toughest job. I wanna [sic] go after him lying, just bald face, irrational lying. No one believes him. Nobody on either side of the aisle believes that these folks [the Iranians] are trustworthy partners.” Former Governor Jennifer Granholm concurred about the group watching in the green room (the guests’ waiting room at the television studio) laughing at Zarif.

A Second Look

Unlike the political commentators, Zarif has been part of the nuclear negotiations. He has direct knowledge of the mystery of exactly where things are headed. By granting the interview, he provided policy analysts, academics, and political and business leaders in the US a delicate indication of a possible path to reaching some concordance on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif was not telling some Oriental tale full of distortion and exaggerations. Rather, his words were austere and natural sounding, stemming from deep thought and experience with the nuclear negotiation process. By their statements, the commentators seemingly sought to arrest Zarif’s efforts to share his insights.

Zarif does not proffer any illusions of assured success or narcissism for the nuclear negotiations as an enterprise. However, more percipient to him is the fact that the US is still fully engaged in the nuclear negotiations. It affirms the confidence the administration of US President Barack Obama, and the other P5+1 governments (The United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), have in the process. They want a deal. Unlike Zarif, the “Meet the Press” commentators were apparently unaware that relations between the US and Iranian diplomats and officials have reached a more positive stage. The negotiations have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking. The improved understanding of their respective positions was further strengthened by back channel talks. The commentators remarks indicated that the nuclear negotiations are not as “fashionable” an issue as they were in the exhilarating days in July 2013 when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Tehran, and in September 2013 when the first direct talks were held between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN and Obama and Rouhani spoke directly by telephone.

Zarif statements may have provided a hint of the discourse in Tehran on the nuclear negotiations at the most senior level, and he is the one individual capable, and apparently willing, to do so. Zarif would undoubtedly be positioned on the more moderate side of the nuclear issue relative to the Supreme National Security Council, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and other key political and religious organizations and senior leaders concerned with foreign policy. He has publicly advocated for continued negotiations to reach an agreement with the P5+1 on the nuclear program before the Iranian Parliament. Perhaps Zarif was even presenting arguments he may have made in Tehran in sub rosa policy debates on the nuclear negotiations. He may very well have included in what he stated on “Meet the Press” points similar to those he has presented to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make the final decision for Iran on an agreement. The commentators heard those same words, but could not hear what Zarif said.

The Way Forward

All things considered, it appears, by providing the interview Zarif actually sought to “clear the air” with the US public regarding relations between the two countries. He sought to build confidence, eliminate some ambiguities about Iran’s positions, and quiet guessing over Iran’s actions, intentions, and motives. Looking through a lens untinted by the conviction that Iran is again engaged in a deception, Zarif spoke to the US audience with a certain kind of humility, not with an assertiveness that might be expected of a foreign minister speaking with certitude over his country’s positions. As the point man for Iran’s negotiation effort, under great pressure, Zarif appeared humble of heart. One would need to be humble of heart to hear what he was saying. The hardened heart would block the information. What is audible to the ear becomes incomprehensible. The “Meet the Press” commentators illustrated how hardened hearts react.

The prime way to understand the situation regarding the negotiations is by understanding human experience: history. Nearly every US president has had to take some major risk on foreign policy. Along with great achievements, there have been grand mistakes. Despite recent progress through talks between US and Iranian diplomats and officials in Geneva and Vienna, distrust lingers in their respective capitals after years of mutual loathing. All sides are very cautious. For a final agreement to be constructed, all sides must exhibit a requisite degree of generosity. That would mean risking much, making it less likely states engaged in the process would do such. If all sides cannot approach the process with this in state of mind, the desired outcome will not be reached. Everything achieved so far will likely fall by the wayside. The next debate will then begin on a way to move forward, as unpopular or undesirable as it may be.

Iran Readies Plant Needed to Fulfill Nuclear Pact with Powers; Despite All That Has Been Achieved, a Final Deal Remains Uncertain

Above are Basiji (paramilitary volunteer militia) attending a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in November 2013.  Devoted to Shi’a Islam, dedicated to the Islamic Revolution, and adoring of Khamanei, the Basij are among hard line elements in Iran who have little interest in a nuclear deal.  Khamanei will have the final say.

According to a May 27, 2014 Reuters article entitled “Iran Readies Plant Needed to Fulfill Nuclear Pact with Powers,” a report from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows Iran appears to be finalizing a plant to convert a large amount of low-enriched uranium gas into an oxide form following months of delays. In oxide form, the low enriched uranium gas would be less suitable for processing into nuclear bomb material.  Under the interim deal it with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany), Iran needs to take action to limit its stockpile of uranium gas refined to a fissile concentration of up to 5 percent by late July.  To be able to meet this particular term of the interim deal, Iran has been building a facility, named Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP), near the central city of Isfahan for turning the gas into powder.  The IAEA report explained the facility’s commissioning had now begun. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had transferred 4.3 tons of low-grade uranium gas to the site from its Natanz enrichment plant.  The report did not say when conversion into oxide would get under way. While it was expected that Iran would have completed this process by late last year, satisfaction is found among world powers that the IAEA is reporting that Iran is meeting this requirement, and has also met all other requirements under the interim agreement.  Ostensibly, the P5+1 negotiated the six-month deal with Iran to garner more time for talks on a final settlement that would remove the risk of a new Middle East war over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.  Those talks began in February. The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna from June 16th to 20th.

However, there have been a few snags.  The IAEA also reports that the conversion facility’s delay, the low-grade uranium stockpile has grown to nearly 8.5 tons in May from 7.6 tons in February.  The longer it takes to launch EUPP, the more Iran will have to process to meet the target by the deadline in less than two months’ time.  The P5+1 wants to significantly scale back Iran’s capacity to produce low-enriched uranium in order to further lengthen the time required to produce enough material for a bomb.  Iran has fired back saying it needs to expand its enrichment capacity to make fuel for future atomic energy plants.  Experts believe Iran potentially has enough uranium gas for a few nuclear weapons if refined much further.  Limiting Iran’s overall enrichment capacity is expected be one of the thorniest issues in the negotiations for a long-term deal.  Other issues include gaining an agreement from Iran to scale back other proliferation-prone nuclear activity and to accept tougher UN inspections to deny it any capability of quickly producing atomic bombs, in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.

During the process, there have been expressions of disagreement and disappointment by parties to the negotiations in the news media and certain parties seemingly insisted on negotiating publicly, but until recently the process has been characterized as fruitful.  Compromises have been made and deals have been reached at the negotiating table and through backchannel talks by officials.  However, the process has reached a new stage.    What is negotiated now matters most. In the capitals of the negotiating parties, commitments must be made that will result in a sustainable, satisfactory agreement or possibly war.  New issues have surfaced that warrant thorough deliberation by negotiators.  Those issues could become real impediments to the talks’ completion. Mutual suspicions have risen again.  The leader of each country has the free will to choose continued negotiation or withdrawal.  The final choice will be determined by the way in which they govern that free will.

Terms Iran Might Not Be Able To Live With

Recently, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokeman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee—a right-wing body that has taken a hard line on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1—discussed the progress of the latest nuclear talks with the Tasmin News Agency.  He explained that there were several points of contention concerning the talks.  Among those enumerated by Hosseini included the following: 1) the West discussed our defense systems and our missiles, while from the beginning we said that this is not negotiable, but they are still insisting on this point; 2) the West has “issues with the number and quality of our centrifuges and even has issues with the number of centrifuges at each site. . . .;” 3) the West even has problems with our research and development; 4) the West did not want to immediately lift the sanctions but wanted to do so gradually after the final agreement was signed. (Hosseini said, “They say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one. Their position is that if their demands are guaranteed, and the Islamic Republic lifts its hands from its red lines, Iran will be turned into a normal country.”); 5) the West even presented a plan that would lift the sanctions gradually over a 10-year process; 6) the West said that not all of the sanctions are related to the nuclear program and that they must first distinguish which sanctions are for that issue and which are over human rights, the missile program, terrorism or regional issues. (Hosseini Naghavi Hosseini said that Iran expects all of the sanctions to be lifted upon signing the agreement. He called this segmentation of the sanctions “a dangerous game” and “part of the intense disagreements” between the two sides.); 7) the West would not accept 20% enrichment for Iran, but added that the West would be willing to sell Iran 20% enriched fuel for the Tehran reactor; the West demands other enrichment sites in Iran would be allowed only 3.5% enrichment; 8) the West also wants to determine the amount of enriched fuel that is reserved, a red line for Iran that would limit its research and development capacities; 9) there were also differences over “who would determine Iran’s [enrichment] needs; and, 10) the West wants to determine whether the West would they allow the Islamic Republic to produce, or would others produce it for them; and, the West did not see the Arak heavy water reactor as being necessary for Iran. (When asked if the issue is a heavy water reactor or the production of plutonium, Hosseini responded that it was the latter.). Hosseini made it clear that these terms were against “all of Iran’s achievements.”

In a further development, Ismail Kowsari, a Member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee (NSFP), spoke to the Tasnim News Agency on May 22nd about the latest developments in the negotiations.  Kowsari revealed after the [interim] agreement, the file returned back to the Supreme National Security Council, and the chairman of the NSFP, Alaeddin Borujerdi, was added to the nuclear negotiation team. Kowsari’s statements would indicate that although Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will lead the negotiations on behalf of Iran, there will be more supervision and coordination with different bodies in Tehran.  Kowsari also added that Borujerdi was added to the nuclear negotiation team at the request of parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

Has An Iranian Weaponization Program Been Uncovered?

In a joint statement with the IAEA, Iran pledged to apprise the agency of what wss allegedly the most secretive dimension of its nuclear program: “the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran.” This is a reference to weaponization.  According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, the fact that the IAEA and the Western powers are now turning to the weaponization question is a sign of how far the Iranian nuclear-weapons program has progressed.  Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center was quoted in the May 27th article as saying, “a concern about weaponization followed by testing and use is the moral hazard when you don’t pay attention to fissile-material production.”  The article explained this meant once Iran was granted the right to enrich and was permitted to develop an advanced enrichment capability, the West was left with preventing weaponization as the final barrier against a nuclear-capable Iran.

The article further stated Western intelligence agencies discovered Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear device dated back to the late 1980s at a Defense Ministry-linked physics research center in Tehran.  According to the IAEA, Iran consolidated its weaponization researchers in the 1990s under an initiative called the “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a Ph.D. nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The AMAD Plan was charged with procuring dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  The AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-03, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserts Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities, now under the auspices of Iran’s new Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND.

The May 27th article confirms much of what greatcharlie.com had stated in a September 26, 2013 post entitled “Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts.”  Dehghan’s descent to the Rouhani’s cabinet after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council did not occur because his administration skills were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was selected 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.  Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC, is inextricably tied to that organization.  It was asserted by hreatcharlie.com that 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.  A key concept proclaimed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah 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 understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, 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 was never any possibility of Iranian concessions, however, there was a possibility that the US and its Western allies might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise.  The talks would give them a chance to do so.

Using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility, it appears that Iran seeks 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 would seem reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities have included 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 in Defense Ministry missions.  As greatcharlie.com concluded, if Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots remained obedient to Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, as the IRGC interprets it, then they would very likely engaged in a dual-track approach guided by that concept. A statement provided by the IRGC back in mid-2013 provided a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declared: “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 indicated that thinking with the IRGC was influenced by Iran’s past negative interactions with the West, and a bicameral approach would assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

The Way Forward

Leaders of Iran and the P5+1 face hard choices regarding the nuclear negotiations.  The success or failure of the effort will fall squarely on their shoulders. Neither side wants to absolve the other of past transgressions.  Suggesting that would be a platitudinous appeal to those who feel they have been harmed.  The decision has not been made easier given positions recently established in the West.  They have been accompanied by public statements by officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama that imply the US decision to negotiate rather than take military action against Iran was an act of mercy which can be reversed.  Sanctions relief promised in return for a deal almost appears superficial.  While Iran has called allegations of Iranian weaponization efforts fabrications, if such allegations are true, any possibility of creating a deal based on mutual trust has likely been lost.  It would serve to confirm the West’s worst fears that the negotiation process was an opportunity for Iran to exploit Western generosity. It gives credence to early declarations of Iran’s hard line elements suggesting its diplomats were engaged in a counterfeit negotiation effort.

As a practical matter, decision making on a final nuclear deal must be guided by political positions and national security directives, along with revolutionary ideals in Iran’s case. IRGC Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.” Yet, when these old and seductive courses have been taken in the past, the results for those desiring an agreement have been unsatisfactory.  Unfortunately, it is far easier to unleash anger and treachery than unleash approbation and goodwill. A final choice can also be based on free will, effectively governed by moral accountability.  In the stewardship of their countries’ national security, particularly on this tricky nuclear issue, moral accountability must also guide leaders’ assessments and decision making.  Moral accountability is dependent upon the moral character of the leadership.  With political and other pressures at work at the same time as considerations of the moral implications of a decision, deliberations on how to proceed would become a delicate dance between virtue and vice.  Leaders must recognize what would be in their citizens’ interest and the national interest for the long-term and determining what would be the best course to take to secure those interests.  For Iran, going to war would hardly meet that criterion. For the West, accepting an agreement that could lead to disastrous consequences for themselves and their its allies would be a mistake.  Perspective must be maintained.  As a concept, parties must think of themselves as taking a gamble by casting a wide net, beyond the horizon, via the nuclear negotiations.  They must gather from their catch what is good and workable, then sift out the bad. In the end, what will be in their basket hopefully will be enough to develop suitable agreement.

A Breakthrough Agreement at Risk; An Unorthodox Approach Might Support It

According to a December 9, 2013 editorial in the New York Times, reports have circulated in Washington recently that Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, are preparing legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s remaining exports and strategic industries if, at the end of six months, the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva goes nowhere.  The editorial explained both US and Iranian officials have made it clear that such legislation could be fatal to the agreement. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Time and the New York Times during an interview in Tehran on December 7th that “the entire deal is dead” even if the penalties do not take effect for six months.   The editorial’s authors went on to state that similar mischief was afoot in the House of Representatives.  Democratic Majority-Whip Steny Hoyer denied an allegation, reported in the Washington Post, that he was working with Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader, on a resolution that could sharply limit the outlines of a final agreement or call for imposing new sanctions.

The reactions of Members of Congress toward Iran, particularly in light of the concessions made on economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to moderately cutback on its nuclear activities, were predictable.  The Congress has made it known for some time that is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the US due to its nuclear efforts.  US diplomats had to appear before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.  The Members negative positions stem not only from a history of uncongenial relations with Iran, but also from a plethora of detailed information on Iran’s nuclear activities, regularly provided by unofficial and official sources, including the US intelligence community.  They are also aware of hard line comments of senior Iranian leaders in Tehran.

In addition to his warning on further sanctions, Zarif surprisingly has made statements referring to the Obama administraions dfficulties working with Congress on sanctions.  In his December 7th interview, he stated, “We believe that the US government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.”  He also stated that “. When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.” 

Zarif and senior Iranian officials are astute enough to know, many of them having been educated in the US, that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center solely on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  They concern the US government.  The Iranians should be aware that the US system of checks and balances, its government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. In the legislative branch, Members of Congress serve as the people’s representatives and oversee what the country does at home and abroad, including the creation of international agreements.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not be subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s got everything it could ever have wanted regarding sanctions in Geneva, it would only be half the battle. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.”  However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals in all respects.  Their respective governments have two different systems.  For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can issue what amounts to an edict on “heroic flexibility” regarding the Geneva nuclear talks, that the enitre Iranian government must follow.  US President Barack Obama cannot require all branches of government to obey any foreign policy concept he might declare.  

The process of direct negotiation between the US and Iran has been a new and unusual process for the long-time adversaries.  It requires professionalism, great diplomatic acumen, innovation, and mutual support.  The administrations of both Obama and Rouhani want a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions.  Issuing warnings to the Obama administration over what the Congress might do is counterintuitive.  It certainly does not make the job of convincing Congress to accept an agreement with Iran, or refrain from passing new legislation on sanctions more difficult. 

Rather than discuss what Obama, Kerry, and the foreign policy apparatus of the US government must do, it might be more constructive for Zarif to consider what he might be able to do in support of the administration’s efforts to lessen sanctions.  Zarif and his superiors have a mutual interest in preventing Congress from legislating any new economic sanctions and encouraging it to remove old ones.  One unorthodox approach might include having Zarif speak with the Congress about sanctions and the nuclear program.  It may build some confidence among the Members in the Geneva process who remain uncertain of Iran’s intent and of the likely outcome of an agreement.  Involving the Congress in the interaction between the US and Iran in this manner might prove crucial to its outcome.  US President Woodrow Wilson learned this the hard way.  Wilson refused to include US Senators among the negotiators accompanying him to the Paris Peace as suggested by his rival, Republican Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge.  Wilson needed Lodge’s active support to ensure Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles.  As a result of that “offense”, and Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with Lodge on the treaty, Lodge gave little support to the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, on November 19, 1919, for the first time in its history, the Senate rejected a peace treaty.  It is not publicly known if any Members of Congress have requested to hear from Zarif.  However, the Obama administration might kindly suggest that the Members do so.

If Iran is truly all in on getting an agreement and removing sanctions, it needs to commit to making that a reality.  Mutual support is what is needed.  Whether Zarif would ever appear before Congress in support of the Geneva process is uncertain.  Although Zarif would be supporting the Obama administration’s efforts, it might be believed among his superiors and hardliners in Iran that he was being brought to Capitol Hill to “beg” Congress for sanctions relief.  Hopefully that would not be the thinking in Tehran because having Zarif come to Washington might eventually become a necessity to secure an agreement. 

When bilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva began to appear possible, just before Rouhani took office, there was an effort afoot in the US Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran.  Hope was expressed in an August 8, 2013  greatcharlie.com post that such very poorly timed incidents and other encumbrances coming from both sides would be worked through by Kerry and Zarif given their talents.  The threat of sanctions at this juncture represents a real obstacle to the on-going Geneva process.  Yet, as long as cooler heads prevail and some thought is given by both US and Iranian diplomats to how they might provide mutual support for their efforts, such difficulties can also be overcome.

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

Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles

An August 15, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, New President’s Cabinet,” reported that after four days of grilling by the conservative dominated Parliament, the proposed cabinet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani survived its confirmation hearings largely intact.  Rouhani’s nominees for the ministries of education, science, and sport were rejected based on accusations by some Members of Parliament that they had been close to the 2009 Green Movement that held protests against Iran’s leaders.  Fifteen other nominees were approved.  According to the New York Times, Rouhani’s appointment of Mohammed Javad Zarif as foreign minister suggested that Rouhani was moving forward with his campaign pledge to seek a more constructive dialogue with the US than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Zarif was Iran’s internationally popular, long-time permanent representative to the UN.  He engaged in postgraduate studies at the San Francisco State University and received his doctorate in international law and policy at the University of Denver and is an expert on the US. 

Yet, the New York Times, August 15th article did not mention that the constructive dialogue will include voices from other appointees such as Ali Akbar Salehi, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, and now the new head of Iran’s atomic energy agency.  An August 15, 2013, Washington Post article reported Salehi had been head of that agency for a year, prior to becoming foreign minister.  He was also Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to that.  An even stronger voice helping to formulate that dialogue will be Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s appointment as defense minister.  According to an August 13, 2013, Washington Times article, Dehghan spent his entire military career in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (“IRGC”).  Until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  That 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.  Hardline, and part of the “voice of the Revolution,” Dehghan’s presence will not only impact Iran’s dialogue with the US but also Iran’s approaches to important foreign and defense policy issue such as Syria.  An examination of available options for Dehghan to take as that policy advances indicate President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime could be made even stronger and the Syrian opposition forces even less effective in the field, while at the same time countering Western efforts to counter any Iranian moves.

Dehghan: An IRGC “Icon”

Dehghan is no stranger to the type of operations required of Iranians military and security forces in Syria.  What might be telling of Dehghan’s approach may be his experience as an IRGC commander in Lebanon.  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran.  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 to engage in martyrdom operations against the Marine 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.  (Iranian diplomats and officials would explain that Iran does not engage in assassination or terrorism.  They would call allegations, such as these made of Dehghan and the IRGC, baseless and ridiculous, and part of an effort by detractors to demonize the Islamic republic.)  Experienced, action-oriented, and hardline, (ruthless at times), Dehghan is dedicated to ensuring a strong future for Iran’s military and security forces.  He very likely views Syria as a good opportunity to prepare and test a new generation for the responsibility of protecting Iran’s interests globally.

The Situation in Syria As Dehghan Inherits It

On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria group, (organized by former US Secretary of State  in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government), recognized the impact Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters were having on the ground in Syria.  The Friends of Syria vowed to increase the scope and scale of assistance to the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Council, and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also determined the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons.  Further, the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.  This statement clearly indicates the Friends of Syria, which includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were willing to wage war with Iran by proxy in Syria.  Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack against Assad’s forces and allies by August!  Considerable activity has been witnessed on the Southern Front, around Damascus, attempting to make gains that should impact diplomatic efforts by the Friends of Syria with Russia, Iran, and Syria.  They have made good use of training in Jordan organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, and have received an intermittent flow of arms and supplies from Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Yet, bringing the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, the Free Syrian Army, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations against the Syrian Armed Forces and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies has proved a far more difficult task than ever imagined by the Friends of Syria.  US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, fully acknowledged as recently as July 18th that “Currently the tide has shifted in his [Assad’s] favor.”  In a July assessment of the situation in Syria completed by NATO, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with Russian and Iranian support, would capture major Free Syrian Army strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO in consultation with US and EU intelligence services concluded that the military campaign had failed over the past three months.  Officials said that the Syrian component of the Free Syrian Army had deteriorated dramatically since April and the point had been reached where it was difficult to distinguish who was determined to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  Moreover, NATO assessed that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  Rather, the majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters, most of them affiliated with Al-Qaida.  It was NATO’s assessment that ostensibly resulted in a decision by several leading NATO countries to halt lethal weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army.  In mid-July, Britain and France signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria.  Officials said that the two countries which until June were the most vocal supporters for arming the Free Syrian Army determined that any major weapons shipments would end up with Al-Qaida affiliated factions.

Approaches Available to Dehghan on Syria

Dehghan was chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council when the decision was made to intervene in Syria with Iranian military and security forces.  Dehghan will unlikely choose to freeze or withdraw in the face of any challenge by the Friends of Syria or as part of some comprehensive deal with the US along with other issues.  In taking steps to counter and defeat Western efforts against the Assad regime and Iranian military and security forces, themselves, Dehghan might choose between two options.

First Option

The first option, as Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University has predicted, would be for Iran to move up the” ladder of escalation.”  That would mean having IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel flood into Syria.  Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could initiate the increase as one of his final acts in office, creating a new era in power projection for Iran.  Elements of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country, along with Iran’s own air defense systems for force protection from any Friends of Syria intervention.  Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy Free Syrian Army units being organized and armed for an attack.  Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel from the US, EU, and Arab states for the Free Syrian Army could face artillery onslaughts.  Attacks in depth with these weapons could have a multiplier effect for the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies as they begin the reduction of Free Syrian Army territory.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide the Iranian and Syrian forces with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by the Free Syrian Army.

The Iranian Navy might move into the Mediterranean Sea using the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria as a port, and provide fire offshore in support of movement by Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah units.  The ships’ air defenses could be integrated with Syria’s air defense system.  (Beyond warfighting, it could engage in joint exercises with the Russian Mediterranean fleet.)  Iran might also deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to enhance military movements and Syrian government’s control of recaptured territory.  Within Iran itself, there may be a modest mobilization of Basij volunteers for service in Syria. 

However, attempting to protect large forces projected a long distance from Iranian territory and resources may prove difficult.  If Iranian forces massed in Syria ever reach the point where they could destroy the Free Syrian Army, Iranian forces would risk being attacked by US, EU, and Arab states, coming to opposition’s rescue.  Iranian forces would likely be cut-off and face the real possibility of defeat resulting from airstrikes and cruise missile strikes.  To cite a few examples of this, in Angola in 1987, South African Army forces projected to Angola, were cut-off and defeated by rebels heavily supported by Cuban, Soviet, East German, and Romanian forces.  In 1982, Argentine forces projected to the Falkland Islands were cut-off and defeated by a highly-capable, sea-based force from Britain, with some US non-combat military support.  In 1991, Iraqi forces sent into nearby Kuwait by Saddam Hussein were cut-off and defeated by a US-led multinational coalition of forces.  Of course, attacking Iranian troops in Syria would also mean the Friends of Syria would be at war with Iran.  Iran has made it clear that in a struggle against the US and EU states, it would not hesitate to attack the interests of those states globally.

Second Option

The second option would have Iran fold all of its forces in Syria into the Syrian Armed Forces.  This act would defeat the claim of an Iranian presence in Syria.  Elements of this approach would include leaving Iranian fighters from the IRGC, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to remain in Syria, calling them volunteers, and placing them outside of the control of the Iranian government.  This was what occurred during the Bosnia War.  A few thousand IRGC troops and Quds Force trainers folded into the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power.  Russia recently took a similar approach when it removed its military personnel from its Tartus naval base in Syria and replaced them with “civilian workers.”  Russia Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdonov, then made the claim that there was “no one in Syria from the Russian Defense Ministry” and the Tartus naval base had no “military or strategic significance.”  The Washington Post has reported Moscow has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian- built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals.

To enhance the combat power of units holding volunteers from Iran, the Iranian military could leave dozens of tanks mechanized vehicles, helicopters, heavy artillery, rockets, logistical vehicles, and communications equipment in Syria.  The Quds Force might remain to train, equip, and fight alongside Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, as part of a covert operation.  Using capabilities provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran would also possess the capability to engage in targeted killings of senior and field grade commanders in the Free Syrian Army.  The goal would be to degrade the effectiveness of the force.

Syrian, Iranian and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate well and cooperate on the battlefield.  At Battle of Qusayr, 6000 Syrian Army infantry troops and supporting armor, initiated the assault by seizing ground, and pushing Free Syrian Army outposts into a killing zone.  Missiles and airstrikes attacked Free Syrian Army shelters at their rear, preventing reinforcements and critical supplies from getting through.  IRGC armored units and other regular units fought alongside the National defense Forces, which included “popular committees” of paramilitaries known as shabiha.  The shabiha were trained by the Iranian Quds Forces.  Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack and took on the mop-up operations in Qusayr while Syrian and Iranian troops move on to take other points in Homs province. 

An Overpowering Look Would Still Be Avoided

Beyond progressively regaining control of strategic towns, Syrian and Iranian forces may continue to avoid engaging in major offensives with attacks across a broad front against the Free Syrian Army held territory in order to present a visibly, “less-dominant” appearance in the conflict.  The full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies have not been brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army.  This may give many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the Free Syrian Army would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, particularly US and EU intervention.  Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syria and its allies, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”

Additional Iranian Support Possible Under Both Options

Make no mistake, the Russians and Iranians are well-positioned in Syria. Regarding Iran’s efforts, as Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 2013, “If there was once a realistic hope that Syria’s civil war would isolate Iran, the prospect has dimmed.”  At stake also for Iran in Syria is the image it seeks to project as a steadfast ally that will not bend to international pressure.  Early on, the Iranians recognized the opening to secure its interests in Syria while other states talked. They, along with the Russians, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US to do anything too substantial with shipments of high-tech or heavy weapons, even MANPADS, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets—a weapon system always on the Al-Qaida wish-list–to the Free Syrian Army at this point.  This is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces. 

Iran could also up the ante by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces with intelligence from espionage, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  It is very likely that at some scale this process is already underway.  According to Geneive Abdo in Foreign Affairs, in the summer of 2011, Iran provided the Assad regime with technology to monitor email, cell phones, and social media.  Iran developed this capability following the 2009 protests and “Green Revolution.”  It invested millions of dollars into creating a “cyber army” to track down dissidents online.  Iran’s monitoring technology is considered among the most sophisticated in the world, second perhaps only to China.  Shortly after Iran shared the surveillance technology with Syria, Assad lifted restrictions on all social networking, most likely to lure dissidents out into the open.

Recent bits of data released by allies of the Assad regime indicate a precise knowledge of most, if not all, aspects of the Free Syrian Army.  The Russian Federal Security Service made it apparent that it had the ability to monitor the activities of 200 Russian and European fighters within the Free Syrian Army in May.  In June, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly updated that figure from the Federal Security Services, stating 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks.  While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Free Syrian Army fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Free Syrian Army fighters.  With continued assistance from Iran, Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, could, themselves, penetrate the Free Syrian Army, having operatives pose as dissenters and deserters who want to join its ranks.  Since the Free Syrian Army has willingly taken on many defectors in company and battalion sized groups without any serious vetting, penetration by Syria’s Mukhabarat may have already occurred.

By moving throughout Syria, particularly Free Syrian Army held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Syrian peoples’ reaction to events.  Moving about in a foreign land, surrounded by the enemy, is dangerous work.  Any fears must be controlled.  Capture by Islamic militant factions could mean torture and summary execution.  Yet, collecting such granular information becomes useful in efforts to shape the battlefield for Syrian and Iranian forces.  Opportunities for doing new things can be discovered.  As discussed in the greatcharlie.com July 13, 2013 post, “President-elect Stirs Optimism in the West, but Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” reports exist alleging that with the assistance of Iranian intelligence and the Quds Force, the Assad’s regime has reached an agreement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).  A rift between that foreign fighter laden, Al-Qaida affiliated faction and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, was exploited.  The Syrians of Al-Nusra have grown angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  The Syrian opposition says evidence of the agreement is that Assad’s forces have concentrated their military operations against secular Free Syrian Army units, and more recently has avoided contact with units of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).

Dehghan’s Likely Impact on Rouhani’s Decision Making on Syria

Dehghan is well aware of the advantage Iran has created for Assad by supporting and fighting alongside his forces.  Under either option, Dehghan will continue to enhance the capabilities of Iran’s military and security forces in Syria.  He understands the potential danger that intervention by the Friends of Syria would present to those forces.  However, he has no intention of withdrawing, hesitating, or failing in Syria.  Dehghan likely doubts his potential adversaries would be as committed as Iran to the situation in Syria.

Dehghan, given his previous responsibilities within the Expediency Council, was involved when Iran’s military and security forces entered Syria.  Dehghan will not be willing to surrender the success that those forces have achieved to enable some compromise agreement with the US or anyone else.  He would unlikely advise, support or even entertain any proposal to put before Rouhani to place Iran’s Syria operation on the table for negotiation.  However, in spite of the successes of Assad’s forces with the help of Iran this year, Syria is not yet a complete success.  Assad and his regime’s control over the situation is not secure and sustainable.  The Free Syrian Army still holds territory.  The Friends of Syria, if not completely committed, are still pushing for their desired outcome, Iran’s withdrawal and Assad’s fall.  Dehghan may find that only further advances in Syria can keep his operation from becoming a bargaining chip.  Perhaps Dehghan’s first move, within budgetary constraint, will be to ramp up Iran’s efforts enough to better secure Assad’s position in Syria. That would be his first victory.