Iran's 'Moderate' New President Still Supports Assad

Rouhani's views on Syria are troubling, and they're inextricably linked to Iran's nuclear program.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Reuters)

In Iran and abroad, the election of President Hassan Rouhani has created an atmosphere of optimism not seen since Mohammad Khatami's presidency, which ended in 2005 in disappointment for Khatami, who was politically emasculated by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his praetorians, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Those who long for a new kind of Iranian leader and a less belligerent Islamic Republic understandably hope that Rouhani will bring a new approach to the nuclear intransigence of his predecessor, check the power of the clerical-military revolutionary elite, and ease the brutal political repression of Iran's long-suffering people.

Washington needs to treat Iran's Syria policy and its nuclear policy as two sides of the same coin and essential to Tehran's drive for regional hegemony.

Yet for all the talk about Rouhani and nukes, there has been much less analysis of his record on Syria. Perhaps even more than Tehran's nuclear program, where Rouhani as a negotiator showed himself to be consistently mendacious, the Islamic Republic's machinations in Syria and Rouhani's Syrian track record are windows into the soul of the Iranian regime and its new president.

Syria may be the real test of whether or not Rouhani has different intentions than his predecessor, as well as his capacity to implement a significant shift in Iranian foreign and national-security policy. If Rouhani is a different kind of leader, he would use his influence to alter Khamenei's full-throttle support to the Assad regime, which probably would not have survived without Tehran's assistance, especially the frontline aid from the Revolutionary Guards, their Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, and Iranian-led Iraqi Shi'a militias.

But if Rouhani's moderation and ability to effect change is only aspirational on our part, Washington risks allowing Tehran to solidify its grip on Syria and to develop an irreversible Iranian nuclear capability.

Washington needs to treat Iran's Syria policy and its nuclear policy as two sides of the same coin and essential to Tehran's drive for regional hegemony, because that is the way Iran's revolutionary elite sees it. At his swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, Rouhani told Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi that, "[n]o force in the world can shake the solid, strategic and historic relations that bind the two countries in friendship." Rouhani assailed foreign intervention in Syria, characterizing it as a "failed attempt" to target the "axis of resistance and rejection to Zionist-American plans in the region."

Syria's importance to Tehran cannot be overstated: Mehdi Taeb, a member of the Supreme Leader's inner circle, labeled Syria "the 35th district of Iran," with "...greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan," referring to one of Iran's outlying provinces. "If we lose Syria we will not even be able to keep Tehran."

Iran's foreign and natural-security policy is set by the Supreme National Security Council, which is dominated by Khamenei and his guards, particularly the Quds Force, the extraterritorial operations branch of the IRGC. Syria policy is, and likely will remain, the exclusive domain of Khamenei, with operational control in the hands of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander.

Suleimani has made it clear to the United States military that he alone makes the final decisions with regard to Iran's policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Hezbollah is a tool at Suleimani's disposal for Syria. In April, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, paid a visit to Tehran, on the eve of Hezbollah's offensive in Qusayr, which proved to be a key battle in reversing the momentum of the Syrian rebels around the Homs area. Nasrallah's visit underscored Syria's importance to Khamenei. He was reportedly told to go all in, regardless of the cost.

A reporter close to Hezbollah added that, during this trip, Nasrallah received the necessary religious ruling from Khamenei for the Hezbollah offensive in Syria. This is in keeping with vilayat-e faqih, the religious doctrine behind Khamenei's political supremacy to which Hezbollah adheres. No one consulted then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because, as the head of the executive branch, he had no say in strategic questions (and he had fallen out of the Supreme Leader's favor).

Presented by

Mark Dubowitz and Tony Badran

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he leads the organization’s Iran projects. Tony Badran is a research fellow at FDD, where he focuses on Syria, Lebanon, and Hezbollah.

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