Syria continued to dominate headlines in the Iranian press this week. Two notable areas of discussion, as Iran prepared for a possible American strike on its Arab ally, were the impact of comments by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani putting the blame on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for chemical attacks on his own people, and the potential effects of American military action in Syria on the prospects for progress in Iran’s negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.
Across the board, commentators were largely in agreement that an American attack on Syria would likely deal a serious, and possibly fatal, blow to the renewed hopes for Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 (or possible direct talks with Washington) over its nuclear program. Iran would either find itself drawn into a conflict against Western powers and their allies in order to defend Syria, or would at the least find it impossible to make concessions to a country that had just struck its steadfast and faithful friend. In the hardline Javan, Hadi Mohammadi argued that this potential breakdown in diplomacy had been planned by Israel, who he said has been a major force in pushing a reluctant White House toward military action in Syria, both in order to strike a blow against its enemy in Damascus and to sabotage the diplomatic process with Iran. “For Zionist officials, in all the products of their think tanks or in their official positions, the new challenge is how to prevent a new tendency and temptation in the White House to go down the path of diplomacy or direct negotiations with Iran,” he wrote. Similarly, in the reformist Etemaad, Sadegh Zibakalam wrote that President Hassan Rouhani was the victim of terrible luck, as he is likely to see his push for better relations with the West halted by an American strike on an Iranian ally. He said it can only be expected that Iran will be drawn into any subsequent conflict, but that Rouhani must be holding out hope that any such event is limited in nature. “Is it possible that luck is on the side of Rouhani and Assad and his supporters will show no reaction to the aerial strikes and content themselves with objections and condemnations? This eventuality, for Russia, China, and even Assad is not out of the realm of possibility. But will Iran and Hezbollah also refrain from retaliating…?”
Meanwhile, President Rafsanjani’s comments met with the wrath of conservative commentators. In Siasat-e Rooz, Mohammad Safari wrote that Iran needed to support Syria to the end, due to their shared ideological opposition to Israel and its Western backers and because of Syria’s support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, but that comments like Rafsanjani’s made the West believe that Iran is mulling ending its support for Assad. Speaking foreign reactions to the ex-president’s speech, he said, “Analyses are going in the direction of saying that is the political viewpoint that the 11th government [the Rouhani administration] holds, but since its unable to express such a policy, it’s a personality worthy of attention in the domestic and international public opinion [who expresses it] and even foreign leaders pay attention to him…” Similarly, in Javan, Hassan Rashvand wrote that “irresponsible and incorrect comments” on Syria, such as the remarks of Rafsanjani, should be ignored and even censored by Iranian media so as not to provide propaganda fuel to the West and make Iran look divided, as he adds that the weakening of Iranian influence and power is a primary aim of the U.S. strategy on Syria. “As one of the principal goals of White House officials…and a longtime mission of the enemy has been to show division among the opinions of our nation’s officials, why aren’t we asking ourselves who it is who will gain from the publicizing of the incorrect information from one of the nation’s leaders referring to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government?” he wrote.
Kayhan, meanwhile, took the opportunity to slam Rafsanjani, a frequent target of its editorial page. After suggesting that he was possibly too old to make sound judgments on issues like Syria, and said that he had lost his credibility by alleging fraud in the 2009 election, the paper condemned the weakening effect it said the remarks had on Iran’s policy and interests. “Now the question is, if, for example, the CIA, Mossad, or MI6 formed the basis for the unpleasant claims of Mr. Hashemi, and our national interests and the interests of the entire Islamic world have been put into danger, what excuse will he present to compensate for the danger he will have brought?!”
That said, Rafsanjani had some defenders. For example, the aforementioned Zibakalam wrote in a Bahar commentary pointedly called “Syria Could Have Turned Out Differently,” he said that by not giving in to calls for reform more than two years ago, Bashar al-Assad made himself responsible for the ensuing conflict that killed tens of thousands and tore the country apart. “Therefore, what Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani said is not far from the truth; his message was that if the ruling regime in Syria had given in to the will of the people instead of resisting his citizens and showing intransigence, today Syria, instead of flowing with streams of blood, would have been a country that, albeit with some political difficulties, had taken steps on the path toward democracy instead of being destroyed.”
APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)
In an unsigned editorial, hardline daily Kayhan excoriates Rafsanjani for his comments on the chemical attacks in Syria, suggesting that the former president has lost his skills of judgment if he is taking at face value Western claims that Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own citizens. The paper goes on to say that signs of Rafsanjani’s poor judgment have existed for years, and thus the elderly politician has lost his credibility; most notably, it argues, he made allegations of fraud in the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which put him largely to blame for the riots that followed the polls. It says that even unlikely sources disagree with Rafsanjani’s assumptions about Syria: “Hashemi’s claim comes at a time when the English Parliament, due to the lies at the heart of this claim, refused to cooperate with America in an attack on Syria.” Saying that the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel “have not produced a single document” proving their claims, the paper suggests we may be seeing the effects of “physical and mental weakness” on the elderly former president. Further, though, the paper argues that whatever the reason, Rafsanjani has endangered the forces of justice by his comments that undermined Iran’s solidarity with Assad. “Now the question is, if, for example, the CIA, Mossad, or MI6 formed the basis for the unpleasant claims of Mr. Hashemi, and our national interests and the interests of the entire Islamic world have been put into danger, what excuse will he present to compensate for the danger he will have brought?!”
Mohammadi argues in the hardline daily Javan that pressure for American intervention in Syria has come from Israel, who not only wants to see its enemy in Damascus annihilated, but wishes to poison the improving atmosphere surrounding Iranian negotiations with the West. He insists that while the United States in large part wants a very limited war in order to avoid excessively alienating Iran and Russia, Israel is hoping for a protracted conflict that would ensure the breakdown of any prospect of an agreement between Tehran and Washington. “For Zionist officials, in all the products of their think tanks or in their official positions, the new challenge is how to prevent a new tendency and temptation in the White House to go down the path of diplomacy or direct negotiations with Iran.”
In the conservative daily Siasat-e Rooz, Safari writes that Iran must stand by Syria – both due to their shared ideological attachment to the resistance movement against Zionism and Western interference and due to Syria’s steadfast support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War – and that Rafsanjani’s comments undermine Iran’s support of its ally. He argues that words like these portray an image of an Iran that is not committed to the defense of the Assad regime, and only encourage Western interference against the Syrian government. He argues that the comments have given domestic and foreign media, as well as foreign leaders, impetus to think that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has stopped supporting Syria.” He writes that thanks to Rafsanjani’s incomprehensible comments – asking “What is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s goal in expressing such a view and analysis?” – the world is looking for hidden messages about Iran’s future policy in Syria. “Analyses are going in the direction of saying that is the political viewpoint that the 11th government [the Rouhani administration] holds, but since its unable to express such a policy, it’s a personality worthy of attention in the domestic and international public opinion [who expresses it] and even foreign leaders pay attention to him…” He writes that it is urgent that the government make unequivocal and forceful statements of support for the Syrian government to undo the damage that Rafsanjani has caused.
Reformist commentator Zibakalam writes that President Rouhani is deeply disturbed by the possibility that the United States will launch military strikes on Syria as a result of the alleged government-ordered chemical attacks outside Damascus, particularly because strikes would doom his goal of building better ties with the West. An aggressive act by the U.S. military against an Iranian ally would make it impossible for the new president to push his desire for détente with the West through the skeptical Iranian political system, he argues. Most importantly, when it becomes the turn of Syria to retaliate against Western targets, Iran will have no choice but to, possibly reluctantly, support its ally. “Is it possible that luck is on the side of Rouhani and Assad and his confederates will show no reaction to the aerial strikes and content themselves with objections and condemnations? This eventuality, for Russia, China, and even Assad is not out of the realm of possibility. But will Iran and Hezbollah also refrain from retaliating…?”
[Bolton] tried to persuade Trump to adopt a particular approach on Syria, but that policy didn’t match the president’s inclination to pull the U.S. out of Syria.