Iran’s former president Rafsanjani signals wavering in long-standing support for Syria

Gareth Smyth writes: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 79, has been written off more than most. But the former president and head of the expediency council remains an astute operator, and my guess is that he has chosen his ground carefully in calling for a reappraisal of Iran’s unblinking support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In saying Assad’s forces were responsible for using chemicals weapons in Damascus in an attack on 21 August, Rafsanjani has surely judged this a good issue for the first serious clash between pragmatists and more “hardline” forces since Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani ally, took over as president a month ago.

While a clash was inevitable sooner or later – and while Rouhani still has the aura of June’s overwhelming election victory – it has arrived quickly, and reflects how delicate a time it is in the Middle East as the United States ponders its first direct military involvement in the Syrian war.

The public argument within Iran’s political class reflects a wider disagreement in Tehran over regional policy and the prospect of talks with Washington about the nuclear programme. There are many in Tehran who would love to undermine Rouhani’s calls for dialogue as means of reaching a compromise over the nuclear programme and reducing region-wide tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims being brought to boiling point by violent chaos in Syria.

Whatever Iran’s longstanding alliance with Assad and whatever the imperatives of maintaining logistical support to Hezbollah, Iran has a strong public policy of opposition to chemical weapons. The deaths of 20,000 Iranian soldiers and the continuing suffering of around 100,000 Iranians from the use of chemicals by Iraq during the 1980-88 war are well known in the country. They are often highlighted on state television.

And while Iran’s link to Assad remains strategic, the conflict is clearly worsening relations with Sunni Arab states. Shia are deeply aware – it is intrinsic to the origins of the faith – of their minority status. Takiyya, the doctrine that holds that beliefs can be disguised in certain circumstances in order to protect the faithful from danger, came about because the Shia cannot win any all-out conflict.

The calculation of the pragmatists is surely that the longer the Syria war lasts, the greater the prospect that the fall of Assad. This would at the very least leave Tehran facing a new regime in Damascus, from which it and Hezbollah are deeply alienated, or perhaps a mess with little of a regime to speak of. [Continue reading…]

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