Why Russia’s intervention in Syria is causing unease in Tehran

Alex Vatanka writes: In Washington, Iran’s stance on the Syrian war is seen as intractably pro-Assad due to Tehran’s ideological fortitude and regional hegemonic ambitions. But the sentiment among Iran’s elites is not as monolithic as it may appear.

The hard-liners, to be sure, remain purists in their anti-Americanism. In what they see as an epic zero-sum game, they are willing to tolerate a stronger Russian foothold in the Middle East as long as it costs the United States and its allies, the Saudis and the Turks. They are interested in quick wins and will worry about the implications later.

However, this is not necessarily the prevailing view among the moderates in Tehran around President Hassan Rouhani, despite the Iranian president sounding categorical in his defense of Assad at the UN General Assembly on September 28. While the moderate Iranian voices on Syria have been drowned out over the last four years, Russia’s military buildup might push them to speak up again. There are some heavy hitters among their ranks, and they have a strong case to argue.

Take Mohammad Sadr, a leading Iranian diplomat and today a top advisor to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. In 2013 Sadr spoke against unconditional support for the Assad regime and warned about the damage it could do to Iran’s regional standing. He famously recalled how he had witnessed the Syrian security force’s brutality while serving as deputy foreign minister in the 1990s. Sadr is no peripheral figure in Tehran. Although his claim that “Assad is no different than Saddam” irked hard-liners, his political heft and family ties, including a relation to Ayatollah Khomeini, was enough to insulate him. He embodies the underlying reservations in the Rouhani camp about Tehran’s most controversial foreign policy pursuits. Russia’s blatant power grab has given this camp new space to raise hard questions. [Continue reading…]

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