Reading Iran’s Reaction To US Missile Strikes In Syria

On the evening of Thursday April 6, Washington time, President Donald Trump ordered the US military to respond to the Assad regime’s recent use of chemical weapons which had “choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children.” In so doing, the US launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles at the Shayrat Airfield in Homs belonging to the Syrian government.  The strikes, according to a Pentagon press statement, were delivered from two US destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to a more recent Department of Defense evaluation, “20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft” were wrecked by the strike.

To date, international reactions have been somewhat predictable. US partners and allies in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, endorsed the kinetic action. Conversely, government officials from the Syrian Arab Republic and Islamic Republic of Iran admonished the move. Such censures nonetheless provide insight into Iran’s framing of the war in Syria, as well as the methods of argumentation Iran has long used to support the Assad regime. As always, vitriolic anti-Americanism featured prominently in Tehran’s diplomatic response.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, called the strike a “strategic mistake.” He also ominously warned that the US was about “to repeat their past mistakes” in the region. “Former American officials created DAESH or helped it, and current American officials are in a state of strengthening DAESH or groups like it,” he alleged.

The conspiracy theory that the US has had a hand in the creation of the Islamic State is as old as the group itself, and is a narrative both favored and promoted by regime elites in Tehran. Over time it has even made itself manifest in elements of the Iranian population. On April 8, part of the headline above the fold on the front cover of the hardline Kayhan newspaper – whose editor-in-chief is a close Khamenei confidant – read: “America formally stood beside DAESH.”

Several other Iranian officials also framed American involvement in the region as a boost to such groups. Seyyed Hossein Taghavi-Hosseini, the spokesperson for the Iranian parliament’s hawkish National Security and Foreign Policy Committee exclaimed: “The truth is that the Americans and some regional countries which are supporters of terrorism and terrorist groups were defeated in the Syrian arena… [therefore] the Americans entered so as to revive the terrorists and develop a support umbrella for them.” Taghavi-Hosseini’s comments are designed to alter international public opinion. Should Taghavi-Hosseini’s erroneous narrative go unchecked, Iran, along with its Russian partners, could more aggressively look to offer themselves as guarantors of the regional order.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Chairman of the same parliamentary committee, cited themes about perceived US desperation in his post-strike commentary. He told members of the Iranian press that, “The recent American action in Syria is indicative of the defeat of the statesmen and government of this arrogant country in the region and in the world.” Despite the obvious imbalance in capability, Iranian officials have often sought to position themselves as more adept than the US in the region, whom they accuse of being in retreat and decline. While Iran’s military assistance has been critical in the form of money, men, and munitions to the Assad regime, Iran lacks the conventional military power to project force in the region, and has therefore had to rely on tried and true asymmetric methods. For conventional force projection, Iran has turned to another state: the Russian Federation.

In a telephone call with Iran’s closest state partners, Syria and Russia, the latter of whom has provided air power and advanced Surface-to-Air Missiles to the beleaguered Assad regime, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani similarly took to condemning the strike. Rouhani reportedly told Russian President Vladimir Putin that “We condemn America’s missile attack on Syria and believe it to be a case of gross violation of the sovereignty of an independent country which makes it necessary for this unilateral action to be investigated and condemned by the United Nations Security Council.”

The citing of the Assad regime as “independent” is in line with the Islamic Republic’s anti-Western and anti-imperialist governing ideologies. But it also draws from the lexicon of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself. At least twice in 2016 (once in July and once in October), the Iranian press reported comments by Assad attempting to frame his regime’s actions as measures needed to keep Syria independent because the West “cannot tolerate” or “does not accept” a sovereign Syrian state. The irony being that the longer the Assad regime lives on, the more reliant it will be on foreign patrons like Moscow and Tehran should they decide to reconquer lost territory or merely govern and hold the territory it presently controls.

Similarly, Tehran has long insisted on the “territorial integrity” of Syria, as well as that of Iraq, where it is using the campaign against the Islamic State to cement its presence through armed networks. These armed networks are seldom mentioned by Iranian diplomats.

Formally, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif and its Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghassemi also critiqued the strike. Zarif took to one of Iran’s new favorite mediums – Twitter – to berate the US for “impetuous unilateralism based on self-serving allegations.” Zarif bandwagoned on the argument made by Kayhan about the US and Salafist-terrorist groups. He purported that “Not even two decades have passed since the events of the 11th of September and America’s armed forces now fight beside al-Qaeda and DAESH in Yemen and Syria in a [unified] front.” This gross mischaracterization of recent US actions in the Middle East notwithstanding, Zarif also drew on Iran’s harrowing experiences during the Iran-Iraq War to bolster an argument against chemical weapons and WMD-use more generally.

In so doing, Zarif failed to mention that one of the strategic drivers of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program was its own eight-year conflict with Iraq. The same logic also helped guide Iran to develop and retaliate against Iraq’s chemical attacks by weaponizing pathogens of its own.

While Iranian military and religious elites also commented on the strike along themes already noted in this article, Iran’s regional proxies also weighed-in on the matter. Lebanese Hezbollah issued a press release calling the move a transgression of “Syrian sovereignty” that was ultimately in the “service of the Zionist entity.” Another militia, the Iran-linked Nujaba movement of Iraq noted via its spokesman that, “This missile attack does not change the rules of the Syrian conflict.” The spokesperson for Nujaba echoed themes about how American military action in Syria was merely a “tool… used to save terrorist groups.”

Conversely, Muqatada al-Sadr, the infamous Iraqi Shiite cleric who led the Mahdi Army (which despite being “disbanded” has been partially reconstituted into the “Peace Brigades” and is believed to be active in Syria) did not tow Tehran’s line on the strike and Assad’s future. According to reporting by Reuters, the cleric said, “it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism …and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late.”

Despite the marked difference in tone by the leader of a prominent Shiite militia, Iranian officials have not seen the strike as inhibiting their support for Assad. While Iranian capabilities (presently comprised of ground assets often delivered by plane) do not appear to be impaired by the strike, there has been no overt escalation by Tehran at the time of this writing in the Syrian theater. Tehran also lacks the capability to respond on the same scope and scale as 59 cruise missile strikes against US assets without launching a major war. Rather, Iran appears to have fallen back on gloating, intimidation, and misinformation tactics that so often characterize Persian-language reporting. Nonetheless, Iranian officials would be wise to not write off the strike. US military power was just demonstrated on a key Iranian partner with exceeding ease. At a minimum, that should remind both Damascus and Tehran to be cognizant of escalation dynamics as the Syrian conflict drags on.

Yet, whatever the proximate cause for varying levels of Iranian activity in Syria, the root cause for the country’s continued involvement there remains the survival of the Islamic Revolution and its rejectionist message. To export this revolution and keep conflict away from Iranian territory, Tehran has continuously and successfully relied on a diverse array of non-state actors, terrorists, and armed religious networks across jurisdictions of weak central authority. But the Assad regime (both in its present incarnation under Bashar and previously under his deceased father, Hafez), has long represented the enduring value of a pro-Iranian state on Israel’s doorstep. Put differently, Tehran’s relationship with Damascus has permitted the Islamic Republic to inject hard- and soft-power into the Levantine theater for over three decades.

Time will tell if Iran will ultimately read the strike as a show of American resolve or indecision. But until then, sentiments such as those from 2013 by Hojjat al-Eslam Mehdi Taeb, the leader of the Ammar Base – an organization tasked with fighting the “soft war” – appear to be guiding Iran’s approach to the country: “Syria… is a strategic province for Iran… If we lose Syria, we will be unable to keep Tehran.”

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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12 Comments

  • Mark Adkins says:

    “Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, called the strike a “strategic mistake.” He also ominously warned that the US was about “to repeat their past mistakes” in the region.”

    This is neither “vitriolic” nor a departure from the views embodied by substantial components of the Western media. President Trump himself, until recently, had asserted much the same thing.

    ““Former American officials created DAESH or helped it, and current American officials are in a state of strengthening DAESH or groups like it,” he alleged.”

    This needn’t be regarded as a “conspiracy theory”. Obviously, ISIS wouldn’t have existed without Al Qaeda in Iraq (since it is a factional offshoot of it); and equally obviously, Al Qaeda in Iraq would have had no significant scope or traction if the United States had not eliminated Sadaam Hussein’s (despicable but effective) police-state and replaced it with a Shiite-dominated local government which, in the course of dissolving the Iraqi army and banning the political participation of the (mostly Sunni) members of the former Baathist Party, alienated a large plurality of the country and made the Sunni Triangle fertile ground for extremist elements. This analysis is perfectly consistent with mainstream U.S. views.

    As for “strengthening DAESH or groups like it”, there is no question that Al Qaeda is like DAESH, or that the rebellion in Syria is militarily dominated by the Al Nusra Front (though it calls itself something else now) and that until recently Al Nusra was affiliated with Al Qaeda; nor that substantial additional components of the front (though by no means all) are, though not affiliated with Al Qaeda, nevertheless dedicated to the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state by means which have more in common than in difference with Al Qaeda.

    If the United States is supporting Kurdish and “moderate” Arab militias, rather than Al Qaeda or Islamic State, that scarcely changes the fact that by supporting a political outcome determined by insurgency, these elements supported by the United States will be eclipsed by the Islamic fundamentalist elements which dominate the rest of the rebel movement.

    Nor does the fact that the moderate “pragmatists” working within the framework of the Al Nusra Front because al Nusra is militarily effective, rather than for ideological reasons, change the fact that if the Front succeeds, the pragmatic bargain will be superceded by factional warfare in which Al Nusra, by virtue of this same military dominance, will impose its agenda by means of the same blend of force, propaganda, and gradually increasing police-state supervision (in the name, initially, of neutralizing Assad-loyalist “counter-revolutionaries”) which characterized the Bolshevik revolution.

    As for the interests of Israel, I scarcely think they will be better represented by a Sunni fundamentalist government than by the Shiite-aligned, Iran-aligned Assad government. The only outcome which would advance Israeli interests is the continuation of a situation in which the Assad regime remains in power but in a weakened state kept busy and distracted by it’s own domestic enemies, but where those enemies (the rebels) are also too weak to decisively resolve the situation to their advantage.

    • Arjuna says:

      Israel has gone further than providing medical treatment and conducting anti-government airstrikes. It is clear that it has armed and trained rebels albeit those who are regarded to be part of the nominally secular Free Syrian Army. The Times of Israel revealed in August of 2014 that a Syrian rebel commander who was abducted and tried by a Sharia court set up by the al-Nusra Front in the Daraa region confessed to having collaborated with Israel. He admitted entering Israel five times to meet with officers of the IDF who provided him Soviet-made anti-tank weapons and light arms in return for protecting the Israeli border with Syria.
      Good points. I believe we should have left Assad alone. Full stop. Robert Ford (the “diplomat”) did as much as Baghdadi to start this war. “It is not unreasonable to speculate that for many in Israel, the best case scenario is for the Syrian war to endure for as long as possible without any side necessarily prevailing over the other. The destruction of military resources, the displacement and depopulation of the country and its de facto partitioning would go a long way towards realising the state’s long-term objectives of weakening its neighbours.” -Global Research (who I turn to when my gov’t is lying)

      • Mark Adkins says:

        It’s certainly possible. Of course, just because the commander of a rebel militia in competition with Al Nusra confesses to “collaboration with Israel” while in the tender hands of Nusra interrogators, doesn’t mean that everything (or even anything) he said was true.

        Getting the leader of the competition to confess to something like that is, in that part of the world, a good way to undermine the competition. Stalinist show trials of factional Bolsheviks for supposed conspiracy with the West provide an obvious precedent. In the case of the rebel commander, his confession was put on video and publicized by his captors.

        Here’s something from the Times of Israel article you referenced:

        “The [opposition] factions would receive support and send the injured in [to Israel] on condition that the Israeli fence area is secured. No person was allowed to come near the fence without prior coordination with Israel authorities,” Safouri said in the video.

        “Israel has never admitted to arming moderate Syrian rebels, who have been engaged in battle against the Assad regime and its allies since March 2011. In June, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, head of Military Intelligence research, told the Herzliya Conference that 80 percent of Syria’s oppositionists are Islamists of various shades, indicating that Israel was reluctant to collaborate with them.”

        http://www.timesofisrael.com/syrian-rebel-commander-says-he-collaborated-with-israel/

        If true, it sounds like Israel was using them essentially as border guards.

        As for Global Research, I came to my opinions independently. I’ve read a few of their stories, and I reckon they lie about as often as American media does, only on behalf of Russian instead of American interests.

        It’s probably a good idea to read a wide variety of sources, since their omissions, biases, and sources allow one to create a richer information mosaic; then discount for those biases and use each to fill in the gaps of the coverage of the others.

        As for Robert Ford, while it’s certainly true that while Ambassador to Syria he strongly supported the uprising, it’s difficult to believe that Islamic militants took their cues from him.

        Of course, the uprising was originally far more populist than it came to be once it was militarily dominated by jihadists running parts of the country as their own personal fiefdoms, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he led them to believe that American military intervention would be imminent once the uprising was in full swing. He may even have believed it.

        The United States certainly did something similar in Iraq after the Gulf War in the early 1990s, once the Iraqi military had been decimated. Voice of America gave misleading encouragement. Then the rebels were left to twist in the wind, as it was decided that a Shiite uprising dominated by Iran was not desirable as a replacement government.

        • Arjuna says:

          Thanks for thoughtful reply.
          I always read a variety of sources, which is why I take such a dim view of American efforts to promote “world peace” and “stability” cough, cough.

          • Arjuna says:

            As for Ford, they didn’t cues from him, they took TOWs which they used on ambulances and civilians.

          • Mark Adkins says:

            So, how did Ambassador Ford get TOW missiles to Syrian rebels? Smuggle them in his pockets and distribute them disguised as party favors?

            So far as I’m aware, the CIA program that preceded the Pentagon’s started in 2014. Ford was recalled in October 2013.

          • Mark Adkins says:

            Fumble fingered typo correction: Ford was recalled October 2011, not “2013”. That’s what I get for indulging in insomniac diversions.

      • Mark Adkins says:

        Incidentally, I was only familiar with Global Research from a handful of (obviously pro-Russian) foreign policy articles I read. But after doing a little research, I find that the organization is far more fringe than I suspected, and has some unsavory associations I was unaware of:

        http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Globalresearch

        • Arjuna says:

          Global Research is sketchy anti-American propaganda a lot of the time, but I don’t judge a book by its cover. When I read statements like this, I tune them out: “Whenever someone makes a remarkable claim and cites GlobalResearch, they are almost certainly wrong.”
          Just because Alex Jones believes in aliens, his critique of the Deep State and Military Industrial Complex is still highly relevant. I think all religious people believe in Aliens, but I still exchange ideas w them.

          • Mark Adkins says:

            Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

            There’s certainly a lot of funny-business going on, but it’s way past cabals of men, governments, or even aliens. It seems to be ontological. Alex Jones is just one of many shadows cast on the wall of my Platonic cave.

  • Holly Molly says:

    Who let the dogs out? woof woof!!!!

  • Frank Dunn says:

    Why would Iran be concerned with a US missile strike when the terms of the nuclear weapons “deal” that Obama agreed to state that the US government will protect the Iranian facilities from attack? Or, is Iran concerned that one of our Navy’s cruise missiles will somehow avoid being shot down by a US Army Patriot battery? We should not forget that the “gloating, intimidation and misinformation” displayed by the Iranians were the hallmarks of Obama’s selling of this horrendous deal in 2015-16.

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