Ayatollah Khamenei, Assad spoke of reforms
Hossein Sheikholeslam, Iran’s former ambassador to Syria and the current foreign policy adviser to the speaker of parliament, spoke toRamze Obour magazine about Iran’s relationship with Syria and the mistakes of the Syrian government, revealing some previously unknown information.
Though Sheikholeslam’s comments were recently picked up by Shargh Newspaper, the original interview took place in April before the Syrian elections. Some of his points in the interview are noteworthy in that they concede mistakes by the Syrian government. The interviewer was unafraid to challenge the official on a topic rarely covered from a nuanced angle in Iran, and the discussion also addressed a letter from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to President Bashar al-Assad.
Sheikholeslam said that the best way out of Syria’s civil war, which has left over 170,000 dead and much of country destroyed, is through elections, as experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show that people would not support extremists in elections. When asked, “Isn’t it too late for that now in Syria?” he said, “Yes, everything is too late. We should have done it earlier.”
He said, “From day one, the supreme leader took a position that Syria needs to undergo reforms.” He said that Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps‘ Quds Force, took a message to Assad written by Ayatollah Khamenei in the first days of the protests. The message said, “The killings should not take place and reforms have to be accepted.”
Sheikholeslam said, “Assad accepted [that] reforms [were needed], but he didn’t have the proper mechanisms. Assad didn’t even have police. Whatever they had, it was the army. If it had a problem with anyone, they would shoot at the crowd with automatic weapons.”
He said many of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commanders have been in the region and “know what Bashar’s problem is. As soon as four people would gather, instead of using police, the army would use automatic weapons. … They wanted to solve it with force.”
He added that Iran had helped in this matter and also helped form groups to negotiate with the opposition. It has been well documented by now that Iran has sent fighters into Syria to support and advise Syrian troops.
When asked, „From this democracy that you suggest and that Soleimani recommended for Syria, would Bashar Assad’s name come out of the ballot box again?” Sheikholeslam said that Iran hadn’t interfered in the domestic affairs of Syria, an assertion the interviewer rejected. Sheikholeslam blamed Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel for trying to make Syria’s government collapse.
The interview began by discussing modern history, most of it well known, including former President Hafez Assad’s support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, assistance Sheikholeslam believes prevented it from being an “Arab-Iranian” war. Syria was the only country to support Iran, while most Arab countries supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Sheikholeslam also said that with Assad’s support, Iran could not have helped form Hezbollah in Lebanon. When asked whether Iran’s support for the Syrian government is because of Syria’s support for Hezbollah, Sheikholeslam said, “No, the entire Islamic resistance, not just Hezbollah.”
This prompted a question about Hamas, which sided with Syrian rebels against Assad’s regime. “They sacrificed their relationship with Iran and Syria for a domestic Muslim Brotherhood issue,” Sheikholeslam said, calling Hamas‘ move a “vital mistake.” However, he said that Iran and Hamas “strategically have no choice but unity.” When asked if Hamas‘ relationship with Qatar could change this relationship, Sheikholeslam said, “Qatar will not give Hamas even one bullet.”
This is a joint publication by AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has conducted an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible while setting conditions to retain its ability to use Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests should Assad fall.
The Iranian security and intelligence services are advising and assisting the Syrian military in order to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power. These efforts have evolved into an expeditionary training mission using Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces, Quds Force, intelligence services, and law enforcement forces. The deployment of IRGC Ground Forces to conflict abroad is a notable expansion of Iran’s willingness and ability to project military force beyond its borders.
Iran has been providing essential military supplies to Assad, primarily by air. Opposition gains in Syria have interdicted many ground resupply routes between Baghdad and Damascus, and the relative paucity of Iranian port-visits in Syria suggests that Iran’s sea-lanes to Syria are more symbolic than practical. The air line of communication between Iran and Syria is thus a key vulnerability for Iranian strategy in Syria. Iran would not be able to maintain its current level of support to Assad if this air route were interdicted through a no-fly zone or rebel capture of Syrian airfields.
Iran is also assisting pro-government shabiha militias, partly to hedge against Assad’s fall or the contraction of the regime into Damascus and a coastal Alawite enclave. These militias will become even more dependent on Tehran in such a scenario, allowing Iran to maintain some ability to operate in and project force from Syria.
Lebanese Hezbollah began to take on a more direct combat role in Syria as the Assad regime began losing control over Syrian territory in 2012. Hezbollah has supported Assad with a robust, well-trained force whose involvement in the conflict aligns with Iranian strategic interests as Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged on April 30 in Tehran. Hezbollah’s commitment is not without limitations, however, because Nasrallah must carefully calibrate his support to Assad with his domestic responsibilities in order to avoid alienating his core constituency in Lebanon.
Iraqi Shi‘a militants are also fighting in Syria in support of Assad. Their presence became overt in 2012 with the formation of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a pro-government militia that is a conglomerate of Syrian and foreign Shi‘a fighters, including members of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraq-based Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Like other paramilitary forces operating in Syria, these militants escalated their involvement as the conflict descended into civil war. The open participation of Iraqi Shi‘a militants in Syria is an alarming indicator of the expansion of sectarian conflict throughout the region.
The Syrian conflict has already constrained Iran’s influence in the Levant, and the fall of the Assad regime would further reduce Tehran’s ability to project power. Iran’s hedging strategy aims to ensure, however, that it can continue to pursue its vital interests if and when the regime collapses, using parts of Syria as a base as long as the Syrian opposition fails to establish full control over all of Syrian territory.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad & Bashar al-Assad0644 GMT: The Battle to Be Speaker of Parliament. Prominent figures have lined up behind Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani as he tries to stave off a threat from a former Speaker, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.
Hossein Ebrahimi, a member of Parliament’s National Security Committee, has declared that Larijani has more support than Haddad Adel, while the head of the Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said Larijani has been good for the nezam (system).
Unsurprisingly, both endorsements appear in Khabar Online, linked to the current Speaker.
0639 GMT: Foreign Affairs (Saudi Front). Mohsen Rezaei — Secretary of the Expediency Council and Presidential candidate in 2009 (and in 2013?) — has been vocal this week in his denunciation of the spectre of Saudi-Bahraini union. In his latest statement, Rezaei warned, „If Saudi Arabia continues like this,the Islamic Republic will lose its patience.“
0631 GMT: Death-to-the-Rapper Watch. Sobh-e Farda, a students‘ magazine at Tehran University, has been banned because of its defence of the rapper Shahin Najafi, condemned to death by clerics and hard-line media for his song „Naqi“.
Meanwhile, the prominent songwriter, playwright, and theatre director Iraj Jannati Ataie has publicly supported Najafi.
0625 GMT: Economy Watch. How serious is the problem of inflation? Baztab Emrooz reports that prostitutes in northern Tehran are now charging 200,000 Toman (about $165 at official rate).
0620 GMT: For the second day in a row, we begin with a look at Iran’s manoeuvres on the Syrian front, this time with a side benefit for the Iranian economy. We post a separate feature, „How Tehran is Shipping Syria’s Oil„.
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