Iran, Syria, And The Sectarian Challenge

Much of the analysis of Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s next president has focused on the domestic political implications of this unexpected outcome, as well as Rouhani’s prospects for reinvigorating international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. These issues are logical fixations for Iranians and Iran-watchers alike; both the internal power struggle and the economic sanctions associated with the nuclear standoff have powerful implications for Iran’s future as well as the lives of ordinary Iranians.

However, Rouhani will confront a broad range of complex issues on his agenda when he is inaugurated early next month. Arguably, the toughest and most urgent amongst these is the horrific conflict in Syria, where Iranian intervention on behalf of Bashar Al Assad has exacerbated the civil war and the intensification of sectarian passions across the region. How Iran’s new president manages its approach to the Syrian crisis will inevitably influence his ability to extricate Iran from its current quagmire of sanctions and isolation. As a result, what happens in Syria may make or break Rouhani’s presidency, and by extension the future stability of the Islamic Republic.

For Tehran, Syria invokes multiple interests: the preservation of its oldest— and for many years, only—Arab ally; its logistical pathway for resupplying its terrorist partners in the Levant and menacing Israel directly; and, increasingly, a fierce assault against the emergence of a haven for hard-line Sunni jihadist groups whose interests and ideology is inimical to the Islamic Republic. As the conflict has morphed from a mass movement advocating greater political freedom to a civil war between an externally-armed insurgency and a brutal regime, Tehran has gradually emerged as a central player in the conflict, providing arms, military advisors, and substantial financial assistance to bolster Bashar Al Assad.

Together with the provision of forces from Hezbollah, another longstanding Iranian proxy militia, Tehran’s aid has staved off the incursions of opposition forces and may ultimately enable some vestige of Assad’s regime to survive. In the process, the Islamic Republic has implicated itself in Damascus’ gruesome onslaught against its own people and in the increasingly vicious clash between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims across the region.

Bruce Riedel, who is a senior fellow and directs the Brookings Intelligence Project, has a great new piece in Al Monitor that examines the roots of sectarian terror in the region. Riedel plainly states the challenge facing Rouhani as follows: 

In Syria, it [the sectarian conflict] is likely to get worse. A prolonged stalemate, which seems increasingly likely, will pit an Assad-Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah western mini-state against a Sunni-al-Qaeda-Saudi-Qatari eastern mini-state. Iran will be fighting to keep alive its major Arab ally, Syria, and protect its Hezbollah protege. Sectarianism will get more acute, spilling over into the entire Fertile Crescent. Even if the rebellion collapses and Assad emerges the victor, Syria will be far weaker and unstable than before 2010. If the rebels win, the war will most likely move to Lebanon and a showdown with Hezbollah.

Iranian and Hezbollah intervention has not only spurred greater sectarian hatred, with almost daily calls for a jihad against them and Assad now from Sunni leaders in Cairo, Mecca and Doha, it has also aligned Tehran with the forces of counterrevolution and dictatorship in the “Arab Awakening.” Long gone are the days of 2006, when Tehran and Beirut enjoyed Muslim esteem for standing up to Israel. Iran’s soft power is in tatters.

Now, Iran has a new president. Hassan Rouhani is no reformer; he is a product of the Iranian national security establishment, but he did campaign on the promise that he would try to end Iran’s isolation and mend fences with Iran’s neighbors. Since his election on June 14, he has placed particular emphasize on the need for a detente with Saudi Arabia, and he reminded us that he helped engineer one in the late 1990s after the 1996 Iranian-backed Saudi Hezbollah attack on the US air base in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. He signed a historic internal security deal with the Saudis in 1998.

It will be a tough act to pull off for Mr. Rouhani, but it is an intriguing move. A detente between Tehran and Riyadh might help cool the Shiite-Sunni war.

However realistic the guarded optimism surrounding Rouhani and the nuclear issue may be, conventional wisdom suggests that Rouhani will have far less room for maneuver on Syria. Unlike the nuclear program, Syria barely figured into the campaign debate. Rouhani’s past frictions with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards during the war with Iraq, as well as more recent skirmishes with hard-liners over the nuclear negotiations, raise doubt about his ability to rein in Iran’s external adventures, even if he were inclined to do so. In fact, it is entirely possible that the most paranoid and assertive elements of the security forces will seek to undermine their new president’s moderate inclinations by upping the ante in Syria and elsewhere in the region. And while the costs of its Syrian entanglement are problematic for Tehran, I tend to agree with the analysis offered by Council on Foreign Relations Hitachi Fellow Vance Serchuck in his Washington Post oped last week. Tehran can sustain its support to Assad, if only because much of the leadership has defined the conflict as Western conspiracy aimed ultimately at the Islamic Republic.

As for Rouhani’s own position, it is— as a number of analyses have noted— inconveniently undefined. He has deployed anti-Israeli claptrap in the past, but has also sought to emphasize the need for a pacted transition, which distinguishes him once again from Iran’s most hard-line elements. In an interview that took place via email with the Arabic newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat, published days before his electoral victory, Rouhani offered a combination of ideological rationalization (“Syria has remained the only country in the region to resist Israeli expansionist policies and practices.”) and unrealistic solution to the Syrian crisis (“Iran can play a mediatory role between the Syrian government and those in the opposition who strive for democracy and good governance.”)

In his new role, Rouhani has some measure of mandate to redress Iran’s economic crisis, and much of the Iranian political establishment appreciates, from prior experience, the centrality of regional detente in overcoming the country’s deeper estrangements. And Rouhani’s brand of blunt realism would have trouble escaping the obvious impediment that the raging conflict in Syria poses for any effort to negotiate an end to the nuclear standoff. Iran’s road to redemption from economic pressure and pariah status will have to run through Damascus, in the form of a more responsible policy and some abatement in the civilian bloodshed.

For Rouhani to prevent the Syrian conflict from sabotaging his economic agenda, he will have to leverage his relationships in the Gulf, where he is well-known and generally respected as a sober and reliable interlocutor. Although Tehran and Riyadh are at odds in and on Syria, supporting opposing sides and each determined to defend their regional sway at the other’s expense, both states share a common interest in containing sectarian passions even if some elements of each leadership sympathizes with them. For Iran, the ferocious anti-Shi’a violence undercuts its claims to religious primacy, and endangers its allies in Iraq, while the Saudis have reasons closer to home— their perpetually restive Shi’a minority— to favor restraint.

Advancing such an understanding with the Gulf leadership would also enable Rouhani to gain some advantage within what is likely to be a precarious new phase within Iran’s domestic power struggle. The extreme hard-liners associated with Iran’s senior military leadership have seen their suspicions vindicated by the expansion of jihadist activity, with copious Gulf funding, among the Syrian opposition. To restrain their impulses abroad as well as their influence at home, Rouhani will need to demonstrate that a diplomatic offensive is more valuable than a military one in defending Iran’s security.

Successfully navigating the Syrian crisis while simultaneously pressing for progress on the nuclear talks may be too tall an order to expect of Rouhani in his opening months. However, few leaders have the luxury of cherry-picking their challenges. Just as after the 1988 end to the war with Iraq, Iran’s leadership moved quickly to repair its battered relations with the Gulf states, Rouhani may once again find that reviving a modus vivendi with Riyadh is the first step in the economic and diplomatic rehabilitation of the revolutionary state.