As the United States contemplates using force in response to the chemical attack against civilians outside Damascus, the Iranian press has been united in criticizing American policy toward Bashar Assad’s regime. It has been relatively rare to find a mainstream Iranian news outlet that sees the Assad regime as the likely culprit in the chemical attack. Even on the reformist and moderate side of the spectrum, sources which acknowledged the possibility emphasized that the evidence against Assad was unconvincing. Fereydoon Majlesi wrote in the reformist Shargh that, “in spite of all the shortcomings [Assad] has had in his years ruling the country and some of his unpleasant behavior,” the ruthlessness of Salafi rebels seemed more in line with the gruesome chemical attack. Meanwhile, in Tehran-e Emrooz, Mohammad Babaei-Nasaz opened his commentary by writing, “Nobody knows exactly what happened in the recent days on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus,” before going on to argue that America is using “discredited video evidence” to drum up support for war against Assad.
Most Iranian sources acknowledged that, even if the details were insufficiently clear, a chemical attack had taken place. Yet some questioned even this fact and suggested that the entire event was propaganda, an orchestrated pretense to roll out the plan for air strikes. In Qods, Mohammad Hossein Jafarian wrote that “the Western media have repeatedly broadcast fake clips of children who are said to have been killed or wounded in chemical attacks allegedly conducted by the Syrian army.” After expressing doubts about the accuracy of the reports, Jomhouri Eslami’s week-in-review piece argued that “The conduct of the United States and its Western allies confirms that the recent scenario had been planned in advance, and that they had already prepared military plans for Syria.” Those looking for a conspiracy found historical backing for their suspicions. In Khorasan, Alireza Rezakhah drew parallels between the claims of Assad’s regime use of chemical weapons and those of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. He wrote, “People in the region still remember the United States and its allies’ invasion of Iraq due to the existence of chemical weapons, and how their claims turned out to be fake. However, apparently, Obama cannot differentiate himself from Bush.”
Some sources saw reason to believe that the United States would not go through with strikes against Syria. Jalil Hasani in Jomhouri Eslami wrote that although the West would like to overthrow Syria’s government to deal a blow to the resistance front and secure its Zionist ally, Russia’s objections mean the United States will shy away from conflict, and “it seems that the current threats of the United States and Europe are instead bluffs aimed at getting concessions from Syria and Russia at the upcoming Geneva meeting scheduled for next month.” In Hamshahri, Mohammad Karbasi wrote before the House of Commons’ rejection of the strike option that Obama has shown in the past that he would prefer to avoid using force, but that “he is under serious pressures by politicians inside the country, and by Washington’s external allies such as England, France, and Turkey to enter another war.” He continued that despite efforts to liken the situation to Kosovo, it is unlikely that all of America’s allies will see it the same way, and this may prevent an American strike. And in Siasat-e Rooz, Assadollah Afshar wrote that the West as a whole has been indecisive on Syria but is increasingly convinced that military action would backfire, as “America’s excessive insistence on changing the political system in Syria is causing discord among the West, and this is why the West has changed direction over the past few months and has pursued a political solution to the crisis.”
Several outlets across the spectrum laid out the case that an attack on Syria would have global ramifications. In the hardline Kayhan, conservative editor Hossein Shariatmadari wrote that not only would a strike prompt a targeted Syrian retaliation against nations including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Qatar, but it would bring disaster to the war-weary, financially beleaguered Western nations that participated in a conflict that would inevitably drag on. . “In the event of a war being started, on the one hand they will face a crisis of widespread popular discontent [among their own populations], and on the other they do not now have the means to sustain a war effort that will run in the tens of billions of dollars…” he said. In the moderate Mardom Salari, meanwhile, Ali Vadaye argued that the long conflict in Syria has emboldened al-Qaeda terrorists and their Salafi allies, and a strike could light the match of a global conflict that he called World War Three. Thus, he argued, the United States needs to refrain from following an aggressive path and seek Iran’s assistance in negotiations so that all parties, including the non-extremist Syrian opposition, can unite against Salafi extremists.
APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)
In the hardline daily Kayhan, influential conservative editor Shariatmadari argues that if Syria is attacked by Western powers, retaliation is to be expected, and that this retaliation will likely mean strikes that hit Israel as well as other nations seen to be part of the “anti-Syrian military coalition,” like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Qatar. He argues that the multitude of valuable nearby targets could give Syria the advantage in a protracted conflict. Taking the attack plans as more than bluster, and suggesting that the United States and its allies are indeed readying their plans for a short series of missile strikes lasting three days or less, he gives a multitude of reasons why they would be unwise to strike. First, he refers to many “American interests” in the region that are already planned targets of Syrian military officials, as well as Israeli locations like the Dimona nuclear site that would be targeted by Syria in the event of a strike. In addition to the real threat of retaliation that the West and its allies must fear, he argues, the political and economic catastrophe that Obama and his European counterparts could bring upon themselves are immense. “In the event of a war being started, on the one hand they will face a crisis of widespread popular discontent [among their own populations], and on the other they do not now have the means to sustain a war effort that will run in the tens of billions of dollars…” This weakness of the enemy, he argues, means that Syria has a “historic opportunity” to bring down the corrupt regimes of America’s regional allies on behalf of the resistance front.
In the moderate daily Mardom Salari, Vadaye writes that the United States and its allies are blind to the true effects that an attack will have in igniting a powder keg of hatred and violence that will pull in the entire world, largely due to the involvement of al-Qaeda and its Salafi sympathizers. The only way to escape this third world war, he argues, is a political negotiated solution that will bring Assad and his non-Salafi opponents together against the Sunni extremists, and this, he suggests, is only possible with the direct involvement of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “America can only escape by winning the hearts of the Iranians; Bashar Assad, by negotiating and cooperating with the opposition and fighting the multinational Salafis, who are killing the Syrian military, the opposition, the Saddamists, and the Kurds alike, can be a water to douse the fire of the Syrian war and rebuild the regions of the nation.”
Afshar writes that the American strategy in Syria has been largely confused, as analysts within the United States have become increasingly aware that an entrenched military conflict will be counterproductive to Western interests, as groups like al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra gain from the instability. Yet, at the same time, the United States’ policy in Syria, particularly in the past, was “change,” with a single-mindedness that turned off various allies. “America’s excessive insistence on changing the political system in Syria is causing discord among the West, and this is why the West has changed direction over the past few months and has pursued a political solution to the crisis.” After emphasizing Iran’s wishes for a peaceful political solution to be reached, he writes, “Unfortunately, today we see that some of the factions bogged down in the Syrian conflict are, under foreign pressure, rejecting any form of negotiations with the government to resolve the current problems…”
Power abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of strong U.S. leadership on Syria, Russia and Iran have been more than happy to move in. It's a measure of just how much they've come to dominate the conflict that they'll be the only major foreign powers at the summit. The White House has largely washed its hands of Syria. But with Iran entrenched in Damascus, and the Islamic State biding its time in the far countryside, it's likely only a matter of time before our hands are dirtied again. When that happens we'll likely look at these negotiations as a lost opportunity.