Despite his speechwriters’ best efforts, if there is one thing Donald Trump and Iran share it is an inability to be shamed. Over the last seven years no country has done more, financially and militarily, to back the Bashar al-Assad regime’s mass murder of Syrians than the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocracy that claims to rule from a moral high ground. Within hours of joint American, French, and British targeted military strikes in Syria, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called Assad to pledge his solidarity.
At a time of great economic hardship in Iran, Tehran has provided billions of dollars to arm, train, and pay tens of thousands of Arab, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia militants help Assad crush Sunni Islamist rebels. Tehran, the victim of heinous chemical weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein three decades ago, has provided Assad the means to deliver these same weapons, while simultaneously denying that he uses them. The question is why?
Distilled to its essence, Tehran’s steadfast support for Assad is not driven by the geopolitical or financial interests of the Iranian nation, nor the religious convictions of the Islamic Republic, but by a visceral and seemingly inextinguishable hatred for the state of Israel. As senior Iranian officials like Ali Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have commonly said, “The chain of Resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway. … Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel.” So long as the 78-year-old Khamenei remains in power, this hatred will justify Tehran’s continued commitment of blood and treasure to support Assad’s use of all means necessary—including chemical weapons—to preserve his rule.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad and Iran assiduously sought to crush moderate opposition and indulge radical Islamists in order to engineer a no-win proposition for the West: Assad or jihadists. Yet Tehran has tried to portray its role in Syria as an existential battle for Iran, against the forces of Sunni radicalism. “Syria is Iran’s 35th province,” said Mehdi Taeb, a head of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence wing and a close advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.” While Assad’s collapse would undoubtedly be a strategic blow to the Islamic Republic, Iran has been a nation-state for virtually 2,500 years before now without the benefit of a Syrian vassal state. Just as Russia outlived the USSR, so will Iran outlive the Islamic Republic.
First, remind everyone that Saddam Hussein—backed by Western powers—used chemical weapons against Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. In other words, Syrian children are not the victims; Iran is still the victim. Second, ambiguously condemn chemical weapons use “by anyone.” This allows Zarif’s Western allies to acknowledge his humanity. When pressed, however, Zarif has always claimed that it was the Syrian opposition—backed by American and Israel—that has used chemical weapons, not Assad. Zarif has paid little reputational cost for this whitewashing; the Nobel Peace Prize committee continues to mention him as an annual nominee.
After seven years, and with billions of dollars of sunk costs, an assertive Russian partner, and a U.S. president that aspires to withdraw from the region, Tehran feels vindicated in Syria. It is alleged to be building permanent military bases outside Damascus, with armed drones capable of reaching Israel. Periodic, limited U.S. military strikes against Assad’s weapons depots are not likely to change this calculus. Hopes that Assad’s mass repression or use of chemical weapons would compel Tehran to reassess its support have been proven wrong. Just as Iranians today frequently evoke how Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran over three decades ago, Syrians will have similarly long memories of Iranian complicity.
Amidst all the carnage and destruction in Syria, a similar question could be posed to Khamenei. Has anything that Iran has done in Syria, or elsewhere for that matter, advanced its goal of destroying Israel and liberating Palestine? Khamenei appeared to contemplate this question recently. “Today the body of Muslim world is severely wounded,” he said. “Enemies of Islam have managed to baffle the Muslim world by staging war and discord, giving the enemy more security in the region. In Western Asia, the Zionist regime thrives in a safe haven, while Muslims are posed against one another.” Long live Palestine.