Iran Rethinks Syrian Fantasies: Al-Assad Swallowing Unspecified Bitter Pill
10 July 2016
By Amir Taheri
When the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered direct military intervention
in Syria last September, his declared intention was to achieve a quick
''get-in-get-out'' victory that would push his other problems, notably
land-grabbing ventures in Georgia and Ukraine into oblivion.
Eight months later, having achieved almost nothing as far as the balance of
power in this strange war is concerned, he is looking for a way out.
Last weekend, Moscow circulated news that Russia had reached an unspecified
agreement with the Obama administration to find a way to end the war. At the
same time Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Damascus, presumably
to prepare the beleaguered President Bashar Al-Assad for swallowing an as yet
unspecified bitter pill.
A congenial opportunist, Putin is acting in character; if a policy doesn't
work he is ready to modify or even abandon it. A year ago he might have
dreamed of total military victory in Syria. Today, he knows that it is not
going to happen.
But what about the other participant in this tragic power game: the Islamic
Republic in Iran? Because the Khomeinist elite are more concerned about losing
face than almost anything else, Tehran is never prepared to abandon a losing
policy until the very last moment.
The late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini persisted with his losing strategy in the
war against Iraq for eight years until he was forced, in his own words, to
''drink the poison chalice'' and accept a ceasefire that he could have
accepted seven years earlier.
As for his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the jury is still out regarding
the degree to which he is still in contact with reality. Some in Tehran
believe that as he has advanced in age he has become more radical, not to say
reckless in chasing ideological mirages. According to that analysis, today he
is only interested in entering history as a revolutionary leader who never
threw in the towel. His aim is to shun the ''poison chalice'' from which
Khomeini was forced to drink. This is why he is still talking about ''total
victory'' in Syria and continues repeating that he would keep President Assad
in power at least until the end of his seven-year term.
I don't quite agree with that analysis of Khamenei's bend of mind on this
issue. To be sure a leader who has developed a highly inflated view of himself
and who is praised day-in-day out as a great genius, not to say a gift to
mankind, by all those who encounter him, including numerous foreign
dignitaries, is bound to develop a gargantuan ego, ending up as a prisoner of
Nevertheless, I think Khamenei is not as reckless a gambler as Khomeini was.
He is prepared to push the knife as far as possible only if it encounters no
serious hurdle. Several episodes may support the view of Khamenei as a more
cautious player than Khomeini.
In 1980 when American diplomats were held hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran,
Khamenei visited the occupied compound and tried to negotiate the purchase of
American arms once the crisis was over. The idea was to send a signal that he
would be the man the Americans could do business with.
In the 1990s when the Taliban, then masters of Afghanistan, killed six Iranian
diplomats and dozens of Afghan Shiites working for Iran, the military chiefs
in Tehran suggested ''teaching Taliban a lesson,'' according to General Mohsen
One idea was to simply bomb the residences of the Taliban chiefs, including
Mullah Omar, killing as many of them as possible. Khamenei vetoed the plan
and, instead, opened a dialogue with the Taliban which, with some ups and
downs, continues to this day. And when in 1996 the French Foreign Minister
Herve de Charette negotiated a deal with his Iranian counterpart Ali-Akbar
Velayati to help Tehran beat some sanctions in exchange for keeping Hezbollah
in check, Khamenei endorsed it. The Lebanese branch of Hezbollah was ordered
to refrain from any anti-Israeli move for several years.
A more recent example is Khamenei's position regarding the so-called nuclear
deal concocted by the Obama administration. The ''Supreme Guide'' must have
known that the whole thing was a scam and, yet, he adopted a rejectionist
position on it in public while allowing his minions to help cook the witches'
brew behind the scenes.
For the past several months he has been telling anyone who would listen that
sanctions had had no effect on Iran and that the nuke ''deal'' committed Iran
And, yet, he also says that if the next US President ''violates'' the
non-existent deal, Iran would ''burn it.'' Accepting the humiliation of having
Iran spend its own money with permission from the White House, Khamenei has
shown a degree of flexibility that no Iranian politician would dare imagine in
our contemporary history.
But, let us return to Syria. Will Khamenei continue talking tough while caving
in behind the scenes? The answer to that question isn't easy.
One reason is that change of policy on Syria cannot be easily camouflaged.
Either you drop Assad to the wolves or you continue betting on him while
knowing he is a dead horse.
Another reason is that the Islamic Republic is not the key player in the
Syrian imbroglio. Others, notably Russia, the United States and Turkey are
also deeply involved, not to mention the Arab states.
Yet another reason is that Assad's support base isn't as keen on taking orders
from Tehran as Hassan Nasrallah and his cohorts are in Lebanon.
More importantly, perhaps, as far as domestic support is concerned, Khamenei's
options on Syria are narrowing. There is virtually no sympathy for Assad among
the Iranian public, and Tehran is finding it difficult to persuade more
''volunteers'' to go to Syria.
It is quite possible that a group of self-styled enthusiasts sold Khamenei a
bill of goods on Syria. The Quds Corps chief General Qassem Soleimani, a
master of self-marketing, may have been one with his repeated promises of
''impending victory in Syria.'' Five years later, what we see is unfurling
disaster as Iranian losses mount and corpses of Iranian officers are left
strewn behind in the streets of Khan-Touman.
Though not officially declared, Khamenei's decision to elbow Soleimani out of
the Syrian dossier was a good move. The bombastic general has been asked to go
and take his ''selfies'' in Iraq where he is seconded to the Iraqi government
as an ''advisor'', and even promote the idea of becoming a presidential
candidate next year.
Instead, Khamenei has asked Gen. Rezai, the retired chief of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard, to come up with ''new ideas'' about the disaster in
Syria. Rezai may not be a military genius but he is at least a grown-up
compared to the childish Soleimani.
Earleir this week, Khamenei also fired Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein
Amir-Abdullahiyan, the diplomat coordinating Syria policy. By all accounts
Abdullahiyan is a competent diplomat and could certainly not be scapegoated
for the mess in Syria. However, his eviction is a signal that the ''Supreme
Guide'' knows that present policy on Syria isn't working.
That may not be enough, but it is still a positive sign that Tehran may
rethink its Syrian fantasies.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.