Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel are directors of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Together they have edited The Syria Dilemma, an anthology outlining ethical and political debates surrounding the Syrian conflict, and The People Reloaded, an anthology about Iran’s Green Movement. On Saturday June 20, they chaired a day-long event entitled Syria—Correcting the Narrative, Building Solidarity at The University of London’s School of Oriental an African Studies (SOAS). The following day, they spoke to IranWire about Iran’s role in Syria, how Syrians view Iran, the responsibilities of Iranian intellectuals, and what the conflict means for U.S.-Iran relations.
How does the Syrian opposition interpret Iran’s involvement in Syria?
Nader Hashemi: The Syrian opposition understandably views Iran as an enemy state, which is the biggest backer and sustainer of Assad’s criminal enterprise. The fingerprints of the Islamic Republic are all over the atrocities in Syria. The full story of Iran’s involvement in Syria has yet to be told. If we ever get to the point where there’s a full investigation, we’ll likely see that Iran’s involvement has been much larger and more significant than has been publicly admitted and reported. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Bashar al-Assad is hugely in debt to the Iranian regime for its survival, increasingly so as the conflict has gone on.
Danny Postel: The Hezbollah’s Syrian surge, for example, in 2013, was critical. It came at a time when Assad was very vulnerable, and that’s why Hezbollah was drawn in. And we now have reports of Iraqi fighters in Syria, which Iran has played a direct role in, and Afghan fighters.
Hashemi: There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago reporting that the Iranian government is paying a $500 bribe to Afghan Shia refugees in Iran to fight in Syria, which is quite revealing. This suggests that the Syrian regime does not have enough troops to do its fighting, and must rely on external forces to do its dirty work. It also suggests that the Assad regime is not as strong as it, and its backers, claim it to be. It does have a weakness in terms of fighters, otherwise why would you have thousands of Hezbollah troops doing some of the regime’s heavy lifting?
If you read the Iranian press, one month ago, the Iranian deputy foreign minister Amir Abdollahian was giving a talk at the University of Tehran where he admitted publicly that Assad was about to fall, and then Iran stepped up its involvement to save the regime. That most likely happened in late 2012 or early 2013, when it looked like the regime was on very shaky ground.
Iran is invested in supporting the Assad regime right till the end, and they’re doing it not for reasons of religious doctrine or political ideology. It’s pure realpolitik. The Iranian regime realizes that the survival of the Assad regime is central to Iran’s national security and defense doctrine—particularly with respect to Israel. If there’s a toppling of the Assad regime, Iran’s regional clout—specifically its access to Hezbollah—diminishes significantly.
Postel: What does that picture say about the “foreign fighters” narrative? Whenever you hear the phrase “foreign fighters” in Syria, the immediate image that comes to mind is of Sunni jihadis flooding into Syria to fight against Assad. In fact, there are many thousands of foreign fighters on Assad’s side: Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, Iraqi fighters under the rubric of the Iranian military campaign, and now Afghan fighters. So Iran is directly responsible for four groups of foreign fighters in Syria. There are also European fascists, neo -Nazis, who have gone to Syria to fight on the side of Assad.
Hashemi: In that sense, Iran has contributed to the sectarian conflict in the region by backing Assad. Now the official narrative of the Iranian regime is that, “We don’t distinguish between Sunni and Shia, we’re all Muslim bothers.” It’s not in their interest to claim that they are deliberately trying to support Shia forces in the region, even though that’s what they’re doing because that’s where they have the greatest influence and easiest access. But by backing Assad so extensively, the Iranian regime has contributed to a set of conditions that allows for other extremist, Wahhabi and Al Qaeda forces to construct a very simple narrative that this all about Sunni vs. Shia.
What do ordinary Syrians say about Iranian involvement?
Hashemi: They view Iran as deeply complicit in the human rights catastrophe that has enveloped Syria over the past three years. When I speak with Syrians there is a lot of understandable loathing, anger and antipathy for all things Iranian. While the anger toward the Iranian regime is political, it has now gone beyond this and extends to the cultural and popular level. A lot of Syrian friends that Danny and I have in common are, for example, are hoping that Iran loses their World Cup match today against Argentina. Today, the word “Iran” evokes similar sentiments and negative imagery as the word “Serbia” did in the 1990s, as a country and society that embodies mass slaughter and war crimes. The soft power that the Islamic Republic used to have, in terms of its influence in the broader Sunni Arab world, has now been flushed down the toilet because of its policies in Syria.
Postel: Compare this to the summer of 2006, when the two most popular figures in the Arab world were Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, two non-Sunnis, one non-Arab. Flash forward to 2011, 2012, 2013: The popularity of both Hezbollah and the Iranian state are in the toilet in the Arab world because of Syria.
Hashemi: Iran, right from the beginning of the revolution, invested very heavily in reaching out to the Sunni Arab constituency in the Middle East—that’s its primary constituency—by invoking the plight of the Palestinians and anti-imperialism. From the outset it said, “We are an Islamic Revolution, and our agenda is broader than our own sectarian and national identity.”
To give all of that up, I think, was a very difficult decision for the Iranian leadership to make, but they realized that they had to pursue this track for their short-term national security interests. So Iran has paid a huge price in terms of its public image and reputation in the broader Islamic world.
Postel: That’s the trade-off. When I hear Syrian friends and colleagues understandably frustrated—if not indeed enraged—at Iran’s role in this, I say, Let’s remember that it’s not the Iranian people, this is the Iranian government, and let’s keep in mind that Iran is a deeply divided society. We don’t know what the Iranian public thinks about the Iranian government’s actions in Syria because Iran is not an open society, but there are some counter-efforts.
Hashemi: There’s an open letter that was sent out by Iranian activists, appealing to the Syrian leadership abroad, saying that the people in Iran are completely uninformed and misinformed about what’s happening in Syria, and that Syrians have to reach out and try to speak to the Iranian people.
Early in the first year of the uprising in Syria, there were a lot of statements that were put out by Green Movement supporters in Iran in solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. Iranian pro-democracy activists instinctively identified with their Syrian brothers and sisters in the early months when the revolution was non-violent and non-sectarian. There was a common set of perceived struggles against dictatorships.
But as the revolution in Syria became militarized – due to Assad’s reign of terror – and produced a number of extremist Sunni militia forces, unfortunately, many Iranian intellectuals and pro-democracy activists internalized the narrative that the only choice that remains is between Assad and Al Qaeda. This fact highlights a deeper problem about the lack of communication and interaction between and among pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and Iran.
In my reading, some Iranian intellectuals and pro-democracy activists don’t want to do their homework and suffer from a particular form of intellectual laziness with respect the conflict in Syria. This is not a uniquely Iranian problem as we have seen a similar phenomenon among many European and American intellectuals—especially those on the Left where the list is long and undistinguished. So I completely understand why Syrians are angry at the Iranian regime and at Iran generally. Ask yourself today: Where are the Iranian voices that are publically expressing solidarity with the Syrian Revolution? Sadly, they are very few.
When I spoke at a Syrian solidarity event in Washington, D.C. in March, I was sitting at a table and people were like, “Oh, you’re from Iran?” They were perplexed. And when I told them why I was there, they were saying, “I’m so glad you’re here. All we hear about Iran is negative, and it’s so good to hear that there are Iranians who are in sympathy with us.”
That meant a lot to me. It also highlights a broader failure among Iranian intellectuals. One of the reasons why Iranian intellectuals are unwilling to take a more constructive stand on Syria is because this whole question of armed intervention, of supporting armed rebels, of a possible Western/American intervention, completely paralyzes them. They view what is happening in Syria today, especially the question of external intervention, through the prism of contemporary Iranian politics and history. They don’t want to see any U.S. military force used in Iran. So they just cannot understand, or identify or sympathize with Syrian opposition groups that are—many of them—calling for U.S. intervention to stop the slaughter in Syria and shift the battlefield conditions in favor of the moderate Syrian rebels.
In the first year of the Syrian Revolution, when it was nonviolent, and mostly nonsectarian, there were some Iranian voices that were supporting it, but they were still quite few and far between. Now those voices have almost completely disappeared.
In general terms, if you talk to most Iranians, they are unaware of the intricacies, the nuances and the details of what’s happening in Syria today, especially the scale and scope of the human rights nightmare that has unfolded. Who the different forces on the ground are, what are the arguments pro and con in terms of foreign intervention—these are topics that Iranians do not have special knowledge of. But one has to make a distinction between Iranians and Iranian intellectuals. You expect a higher standard from intellectuals.
Postel: It’s an interesting problem. If you dial the clock back to 2009, during the Green Movement protests in Iran, remember how the Palestine issue played out. There were placards and slogans of “Not a Dime for Palestine.” That was an unfortunate if understandable slogan, because it turned its back on a good cause. People in Iran shouldn’t be indifferent to the plight of Palestinians just because their government takes the position it does. My point in raising this is, there was an understandable resentment amongst some Green protestors against Iran’s involvement in Palestine. I don’t see those kinds of slogans with respect to Syria. Where are the “Not a dime for Assad” placards?
Hashemi: Iran is a very suffocating environment. Even under Rouhani, the ability of people to speak their mind is very limited. There is no public debate in Iran over Syria policy, and I would argue that Iran couldn’t have one, because it’s so central to the regime’s national security interests.
This issue is a red line, similar to the nuclear question. There can’t be a free, public debate in Iran on the nuclear question. Just recently, University of Tehran professor, Sadegh Zibakelam, was sentenced to jail for publicly expressing a dissenting view on the nuclear question. That gives you a sense of these red lines. If you cross them, you get thrown into jail.
You mentioned one instance of an Iranian regime figure criticizing Assad or questioning his methods. Can you think of others?
Hashemi: Rafsanjani made a speech right after the chemical weapons attack last summer, pointing the finger at the Assad regime, and it got a lot of press. Then it was taken down from his website because it challenged the regime’s narrative. The issue of chemical weapons is very sensitive because of the Iran-Iraq War.
But if you look at the Iranian regime’s changing narrative with respect to the Arab Spring and how to deal with the revolt in Syria, Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister and foreign policy aide to Khamenei said explicitly at the beginning, “We support Arab uprisings to the extent that they are against America and Israel.”
Postel: That’s pretty blunt.
Hashemi: In Syria that’s not the case. So the regime was confused over what to say with respect to Syria and was parroting the Syrian regime’s line. But when it became clear that this was a popular uprising, then you saw the foreign ministry change the narrative a bit, saying foreigners should not intervene, Syrians have to resolve this, the Syrian regime has to engage in dialogue with its own people—that line started to emerge from within the Iranian regime. Iran has posited its own peace plan, it has tried to acknowledge that these issues have to be resolved within Syria and that legitimate grievances exist that must be addressed—without going into details. It’s publicly but very mildly encouraged the regime to engage in reform—that’s the extent of the critique that they’ve had.
Now the regime, if you listen to what Rouhani is saying, because there’s a complete national consensus on this among hardliners and reformists, they all say what is happening in Syria is all about extremism, which is exactly the narrative of the Assad regime, and among many people on the left here as well, and that’s all they want to talk about; nothing else. They don’t want to talk about the core essence of the Syrian Revolution: issues related to basic questions of democracy, dictatorship, dignity and human rights.
Postel: Anyone, whether it’s the Iranian regime, or anyone on the left, who says, “Well, the real issue in Syria is Sunni extremism and I don’t support any uprising that involves all of these fanatical jihadi elements,” my test for them is to say, “During the first seven to eight months of the Syrian uprising, when there were no foreign fighters, and it was almost entirely peaceful, nonviolent and nonsectarian, and it represented a cross-section of Syrian society—there were not just Sunni Muslims but Christians, Alawis, Druze, Ismailis, atheists, all sorts of secularists—did the Iranian regime support it then?” No, they didn’t. So anyone who claims that they can’t support the Syrian uprising because of Al Qaeda or jihadi extremists, I simply don’t think there is any moral credibility to that argument if they didn’t support it before those elements were introduced.
Nader Hashemi speaks at the recent Syria conference at SOAS
The ISIS attacks and some progress on the interim nuclear deal have encouraged the sense that the West is inclined to re-engage with Iran. How does that pertain to Syria now?
Hashemi: There’s no connection whatsoever. These are completely different tracks. The Iran nuclear negotiations have no bearing on Iran’s relationship to Syria, or the US and Iran reaching some sort of common agenda on Syria.
For 35 years, the two sides have been so distant. Getting to a nuclear deal—if we can actually get there—will be a huge accomplishment. I don’t think it necessarily means that there is going to be an agreement on any other regional issues. Now it’s pretty clear that because of what’s happening in Iraq today there is a convergence of interests between the US position and the Iranian position. They both want to see ISIS defeated. You’re even seeing, for the first time, American senators saying, “Look, during World War II we allied ourselves with Stalin to defeat Hitler, maybe we can do the same thing in the context of Iraq.”
I don’t see anything coming of that. The United States may, at most, just look the other way while Iran’s Revolutionary Guards play a role. The United States has taken a position on Syria—Assad must go—that it has been unwilling to back up in terms of the use of force. It would be hugely embarrassing for Obama to climb down now, although you’re seeing senior members of the American foreign policy establishment saying, “We have to make our deal with Assad, as bad as he is, because the alternative is Al Qaeda.” But I can’t see Obama, as long as he’s president, backtracking from that position and working with Iran, because the US position, at least rhetorically, on Syria, and Iran’s position on Syria, are just completely opposite.
Postel: Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, has argued that the United States might have been able to work with Iran and Russia to nudge the Assad regime at least on humanitarian issues—allowing food and medicine in to besieged areas, for example. But because of the nuclear negotiations, the U.S. was not willing to push either Russia or Iran on anything related to Syria, because getting that nuclear deal done is so precarious, it faces such opposition in both the US Congress and among the hardliners in Iran, and this might be the only chance, with a reformist in Tehran, and a liberal in Washington, maybe in a generation, when this could happen.
One of the senior Iranian foreign policy leaders, a former nuclear negotiator, said that had the United States bombed Assad last summer after he used sarin gas in Damascus, that Iran would have broken off the secret nuclear negotiations that were taking place in Oman.
Hashemi: That raises the question, assuming that we get to a final nuclear deal, and the agreement is in force, does that allow Obama more options to explore with respect to Syria and Iraq? It’s pretty clear right now in terms of how Obama has reacted to the crisis in Iraq today—I mean these Al Qaeda forces are 37 miles outside of Baghdad and Obama is still very reluctant to get involved—that gives you a sense of how the legacy of the Bush/Cheney wars have really shaped not just Obama’s thinking, but the American public as well.
It’s pretty clear that for Obama, his priorities are the Iran nuclear negotiations and making sure America doesn’t get involved in another war. Syria just complicates that whole picture. It’s inconvenient and my sense is that Obama just hopes it will go away. But as we’re seeing now, just as many of us had predicted, the refusal to pursue the right policy in Syria is now having huge consequences, and the ripple effects from Syria are now destabilizing the entire Middle East.