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.

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).

Throughout the duration of the Syrian war, Rouhani has been the personal representative of Khamenei to the Supreme National Security Council. If Rouhani had any influence on the regime's approach to Syria, there is certainly no public evidence that he has disagreed with the thrust of that policy. If Rouhani has agreed with Khamenei and Suleimani, then he is complicit in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrians.

The public record suggests that Rouhani, in fact, is closely aligned with Khamenei and Suleimani: His statements reveal a conspiratorial, anti-American, and anti-Israel worldview that justifies Iranian intervention in support of Assad.

Rouhani describes the uprising in Syria as an American and Israeli conspiracy aimed at undermining the "resistance" to Israel. He charges that the, "[m]achinations of the West in Syria are conspiracies against Iran." Meanwhile, his statement against "extremism," "terrorism" and "foreign interference" in Syria, and his depiction of Syria as a regional anomaly rather than as part of the Arab Spring, or "Islamic Awakening," reflect Assad's position: The uprising against Assad's rule is "terrorism," and not a genuine popular uprising.

Only a month after Rouhani issued a statement opposing terrorism and foreign interference inside Syria, he publicly pledged his support for the Assad regime, and Hezbollah, reaffirming that Iranian-Syrian ties will be able to confront "enemies in the region, especially the Zionist regime."

The Obama administration wisely has avoided Iranian attempts to tie Syria and Iranian nukes together in the diplomatic talks over Tehran's nuclear program. This ploy should always be rejected; it is an Iranian attempt to undercut American negotiating leverage by expanding the scope of the nuclear talks so that, for example, Tehran can offer to support the end of Assad's rule in exchange for international acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

That leverage is based on a strategy of coercive diplomacy, which in turn requires economic and military coercion. If the Obama administration wants to persuade the Supreme Leader to meet Iran's international nuclear obligations, it needs to massively intensify the sanctions on Tehran to wipe out the Islamic Republic's foreign exchange reserves, which would bring the regime to the brink of economic collapse; right now is exactly the wrong time to be offering meaningful sanctions relief.

The U.S. can't assume that increased concessions will strengthen Rouhani's "moderate" position in the Iranian political structure. Instead, the onus should be on Rouhani to demonstrate his influence and moderation.

Sanctions are also likely not enough: Since Tehran doesn't appear to fear the possibility of American military force, President Obama can strengthen his warning that he does not bluff through intermediate military steps.

The presence of IRGC units, Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Syria presents a target of opportunity: Surgical U.S. strikes directly or through carefully-vetted U.S. proxies against Iranian-backed assets in Syria, or against the Assad regime itself, can enhance Washington's leverage on both the Syrian and nuclear tracks.

With the Assad regime looking less likely to hold onto all of Syria, a strategic defeat now for the U.S. would be the creation of an Iranian-backed " Alawistan" enclave in Western Syria, stretching from the Alawite heartland to Damascus via Homs, and adjoined to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would be a regional platform from which Iran and its proxies could strengthen their dominance over the Levant.

The strategic designs of the Iranian regime and its new president are much more difficult to obfuscate on the killing fields of Syria than in the highly technical and arcane language of nuclear physics. The only way to thwart Tehran's regional and nuclear ambitions is to treat the Iranian regime as it is, not as we wish it to be.