from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Iran’s Syria Policy, and Ours

August 28, 2012

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Today’s news dramatizes the contrast between Iran’s Syria policy and that of the United States.

American policy is devastatingly described in a Washington Post editorial today as "reprehensible" and "morally indefensible" for its passivity. The editorial must be read in full for the anger behind it to be fully understood. (Parenthetically, it raises the question of whether the Post will endorse for re-election a candidate whom it has described in this manner.)

Meanwhile, the new president of France has called for action in the face of the daily slaughter. Washington is ignoring him. But the call for action is being heard in Tehran, which is both acting and planning for greater action if that is what is needed to win.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran has sent troops to "bolster" Assad’s forces and is ready to send more:

On Thursday, Iran’s defense minister publicly signaled a shift. If Syria fails to put down the uprising, Iran would send military help based on a mutual defense agreement between the two countries, two Iranian newspapers quoted Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi as saying....

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters, has appointed Qasim Solaimani, the commander of the elite Quds Forces, to spearhead military cooperation with Mr. Assad and his forces, according to an IRGC member in Tehran with knowledge about deployments to Syria.

The Quds Forces are the IRGC’s operatives outside Iran, responsible for training proxy militants and exporting the revolution’s ideology. The U.S. blames the Quds Forces for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Solaimani has convinced Mr. Khamenei that Iran’s borders extend beyond geographic frontiers, and fighting for Syria is an integral part of keeping the Shiite Crescent intact," said the IRGC member in Tehran. The so-called Crescent, which came together after Saddam Hussein’s fall, includes Shiites from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Iran is now sending hundreds of rank-and-file members of the IRGC and the basij—a plainclothes volunteer militia answering to the guards—to Damascus, said two people in the IRGC familiar with the movements.

So Iran is playing for keeps. It is ironic that while so many in the West derided the notion of a "Shia crescent" when it was first raised by Jordan’s King Abdullah, that notion is believed in Tehran--and believed to be worth killing and dying for. It is true that Iran’s backing for the bloody Assad regime will increase its unpopularity in the Arab world, but Tehran’s rulers must have concluded that power in Damascus (and, if Assad wins this civil war, in Beirut) is worth whatever it costs.

We appear to have concluded that passivity is the best policy, that nothing important is at stake, and that an Iranian victory is nothing much to be concerned about. We appear unconcerned as well about public opinion in the Arab world, where people can hear Syrian rebels criticizing the United States for providing only rhetorical support and being indifferent to their slaughter. The president who traveled to Cairo in 2009 to court Arab opinion has apparently decided that speeches are one thing, and action another.

I have little to add to the Post’s rhetoric in its editorial today. This is a shameful, and damaging, moment in American foreign policy.

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