Early this year, Ali Akbar Velayati, the top international affairs adviser to Iran‘s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said of Syria’s embattled president: “Bashar al-Assad is our red line and we will support him to the end.” Three weeks ago, the conservative Alef website featured a letter from Assad that was hand delivered to Khamenei, which read: “With the support of steadfast, visionary and strong allies like Iran we are certain of victory.”
On Wednesday, however, in his first meeting with President Hassan Rouhani’s new cabinet, Khamenei limited himself to expressing Iran’s strong kinship with Syria and characterising a potential western attack as “a certain catastrophe”. Avoiding any pledge of specific support, he raised his palms in prayer, saying: “I hope merciful God protects this region from the menace of America and Zionism and other evils.”
A Middle East analyst in Tehran said: “It is evident that Khamenei is worried enough about his nuclear programme and isn’t scrambling for a new headache for himself. He has also gotten this into the heads of his vociferous commanders, who love belligerent oration. Why? Because he has understood that this is not a joke anymore.”
It is also likely that Iranian leaders see the sort of strike being mooted as no more than a rap on Assad’s knuckles, rather than a step towards bringing down his government. Exercising restraint at this juncture will not only keep Iran from wading into an inferno, but will also maintain its ability to influence Syrian politics in the future.
In the eyes of some commentators, recent events suggest that Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been able to get the upper hand in influencing the supreme leader. The lack of a vehement reaction from Tehran to the possibility of a strike on Syria could indicate that the regime is prepared to adopt a much more moderate approach to engagement with the west than was the case during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years as president.
One Iranian analyst, who spoke on condition of full anonymity, holds a very different opinion. “The Iranian establishment will stick to its guns,” he said. “Zarif and others may use a different, less confrontational tone than Ahmadinejad, but national interests are national interests. If they take Syria, Iran is next, from the Iranian perspective.
“Iran hasn’t been spending all these resources in Syria for nothing these past decades. Syria was a critical ally during the Iran-Iraq war. [Assad’s father, Hafez] supported Iran against Saddam and kept Arab states from forming a united front against the newly formed Islamic Republic in the 1980s.
“Even if the shah were in power, he would help [Syria]. It’s a matter of national interest.”