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