Iranian Intellectuals Analyze/Oppose Iran’s Role in Syria

Editorial note from Frieda Afary
On October 30, 2015 when the U.S., Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and several other nations held a conference to discuss the fate of Syria, the Persian-language human rights website, Zamaneh, launched a special page entitled “War in the Region and Iran’s Share of Responsibility.”

Zamaneh which is known for its in-depth analyses and openness to discussing issues such as the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities, had earlier sent out an invitation with specific questions to a variety of Iranian intellectuals and had selected eight responses from four women and four men, including a Kurdish journalist to launch the special page. The page continues to receive new contributions and also includes earlier articles, as well as a Zamaneh interview with Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Below are my translated summaries of the analyses published on October 30.

Susan Olia, Zamaneh writer, Holland:
Since Sept. 30, Russia’s use of airstrikes in Syria, has changed the balance of power in favor of Bashar al-Assad. Iran too is using the Russia card to further establish itself as a power in the region and globally. The struggle between the regional and global powers is not about Assad but about Syria’s strategic importance. Issues such as the conflict between Russia and NATO, between Shia and Sunni, Turkey’s power-seeking, Sunni fundamentalism, and the conflict with the Kurds are all components of the Syrian crisis. Can the civil war in Syria lead to a “world war?” Is the Syria case replacing the nuclear case for Iran? Is it turning into a source of tension that will impose new political and economic pressures on the country and enable further power-seeking by the military? What is the Islamic Republic’s share of responsibility for the crisis in the region and what warnings should be given to the Iranian public?

Shirin Ebadi, Jurist, Human Rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, England:
If Iran had used its influence in Iraq to improve life in that country, ISIS would have never been able to occupy several important Iraqi cities. Instead, Nouri al-Maliki was used as a puppet of the Islamic Republic, and the Sunnis were ignored. Had it not been for the Iranian regime’s infinite support for the Assad regime, Assad would have been toppled a few months [after the 2011 Revolution] and the people would have been victorious. However, Iran’s intervention led to the massacre of the people, a civil war and a power vacuum in which ISIS was able to grow. Instead of creating welfare for the Iranian people, the Iranian regime has been sending arms and forces and millions of dollars to other Islamic countries in order to make Iran the leader of the Islamic world.

On the other hand, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have had the same dream. The political and military competition of these two undemocratic governments has set the region on fire. Russia and China are supporting Iran. Israel and the U.S. are supporting Saudi Arabia. The result has been wars by proxy which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the destruction of many ancient sites and the rise of terrorism in the region. Iran has made a bad gamble which it needs to end. National resources and funds released after the nuclear agreement should be used for the welfare of the people and purposes such as building schools and hospitals.

Ali Keshtgar, Political Analyst, France:
The current situation in Syria and Iraq is the outcome of various international and regional factors. The most important international factor has been the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the destruction of the regime and the political infrastructure. The most important regional factor has been the Islamic Republic. ISIS could not have emerged without the fear and dissatisfaction experienced by Iraqi Sunnis in face of the rise to power of a Shi’a Islamic Republic which discriminated against them. The intervention of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its bringing to power, a regime similar to itself, made the Iraqi Sunnis welcome Salafist movements. In Syria too, four years ago, the people demanded nothing but free elections and freedom for political parties. Instead, the dictatorship of the Assad dynasty, backed by financial and military support from the Islamic Republic, repressed and demolished moderate and reformist opposition movements. As a result, democracy-seeking movements were marginalized and Sunni fundamentalist extremists replaced them. Other factors that have had a share in expanding Islamic fundamentalism and aggravating the crisis in Syria and Iraq are the following:Saudi Arabian, Persian Gulf state and Turkish support for Sunni fundamentalists; poverty and unemployment experienced by youth in Europe who join the Islamic fundamentalists; unchallenged Western support for Israeli expansionism.

Frieda Afary, Journalist and Translator, United States:
Most analysts admit that Russian air strikes and intensified Iranian military intervention in Syria have been primarily aimed at regions controlled by the moderate opposition and not ISIS. The U.S. and Europe have also accepted Russian and Iranian military intervention in Syria. On the other hand, recent negotiations between Turkey and the European Union are aimed at closing Europe’s doors to Syrian refugees, thereby forcing them to stay in Syria and die or experience a slow death in refugee camps in Syria’s neighboring countries. Considering the scale of this refugee crisis (8 million inside and 4 million outside Syria) shouldn’t we call it a holocaust? Some Iranian activists and intellectuals have openly expressed their opposition to the Iranian government’s military intervention in Syria. However, many Iranian activists and intellectuals implicitly or explicitly defend the Assad regime and claim that maintaining it will prevent the growth of ISIS. They think the Assad regime is the “better option” because it is secular and can be reformed. I think this argument is illogical and inhuman. First, the majority of the more than 250,000 killed in Syria since 2011 have been killed by government forces. The majority of the refugees have been fleeing the regions under the regime’s control. This regime which has been compared to Nazi Germany is no less ferocious than ISIS. Secondly, the Assad regime and ISIS feed off each other. An authoritarian system based on the Shi’a monopoly of power fans the flames of Sunni fundamentalism. The Iranian people need to be warned that the continuation of the Assad regime, with or without Assad, will lead to the continuation of ISIS as well as the stronger use of nationalist discourses by regional powers to repress any form of democratic opposition in the Middle East.

Jalil Roshandel, Professor of Political Science, United States:
Iran has become part of a war which is bitter and useless. The goal of this war is to legitimize Assad through destroying his political opponents. At the same time, Russia wants to destroy ISIS because thousands of its members are Muslims of Russian ancestry and will most likely target Muslim regions of Russia or neighboring Central Asian countries next. What interests are at stake in Syria? Whose national interests? In the 1980s, the war with Iraq justified Iran’s purchase of Syrian friendship. Today, Iran is taking on a much higher cost only for the purpose of keeping a bridge to Lebanon and endangering Israel’s security. There is no justification for Iran’s participation in this war. This is a war that can be easily managed politically through the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Supporting Assad will pour a large portion of Iran’s post-sanctions released assets and achievements into Russia’s military morass. The Iranian people need to consciously demand their social and political rights. They have a right to demand complete transparency in the process of decision making and in the execution of matters related to national interests and foreign policy, instead of simply being invited to the funerals of the “advisors” killed to promote the goals of Moscow and Damascus.

Elaheh Boghrat, Journalist, Germany:
There is a full-scale war in the region. For too long, the war in Afghanistan has been reduced to the issue of Taliban and Al-Qaida being products of the policies of Russia and the U.S. Now, the war in Syria is being reduced to Assad and ISIS being the instruments of international players. Powerful countries and regional regimes such as those in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey do not want to acknowledge their role in causing the disastrous situation in the region. They want to come on the scene as saviors and providers of “political solutions.” Concerning Iran’s share of responsibility, we have to speak of the Iranian regime and not “Iran.” The Iranian regime’s quest for domination and expansion is not for occupying other countries but for expanding the Shi’a population of the region and the world. This strategy is doomed because there are different sects within Islam and because Sunni and Arab countries are powerful. Among Muslims, The Islamic Republic is a minority politically, ethnically and from a religious point of view.

Reza Taghizadeh, Lecturer, University of Glasgow, Scottland:
As a result of its military and political intervention in Syria, the Islamic Republic, alongside Russia, has become a symbol of animosity and division within Muslim societies. The increased military presence of Russia in the region which is taking place with financial and logistical support from the Islamic Republic will certainly change the geography of the region politically and from a security standpoint. Iran’s increased military presence in Syria and Iran’s expanded military and security cooperation with Kremlin can go beyond Syria’s borders and create new considerations concerning the behavior of the Islamic Republic inside Iran and in relationship to regional countries and the global community. As a result of these possible developments, Iran can face the danger of becoming a declining regional power instead of a thriving one.

Shadyar Emrani, Journalist, Turkey:
The fact that the West has moved beyond dependence on oil has changed the status of the Middle East. It is no longer the two poles of East and West, which challenge each other in the Middle East. Rather, it is regional powers that vie for power. Iran’s continued involvement in Syria was posed as an Iranian demand in the nuclear negotiations a long time ago. In all the meetings of the 5+1 nations, Syria was a main topic of discussion. The leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] have also openly admitted to their military presence in Syria. This presence is also felt directly in Iraq. The Islamic Republic is not aiming for expanding its economic monopoly but wishes to increase its status as a regional power. Neither Assad and his Iranian and Russian supporters, nor the U.S. and its allies are aiming for preserving Syria’s national cohesion. Each can only take its share through partitioning Syria. Syria today is not the site of a battle between global powers but rather the battleground of their unity, a unity which will offer each party its desired share: the expansion of political hegemony for Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; the unquestioned preservation of Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean Sea; peace of mind for the United States concerning Israel and its control over the whole of the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and most importantly the Suez Canal. What the Iranian people see today as the achievement of the Rouhani administration and the Quds Force [of the IRGC] is the victory of the Iranian ruling class in global power-seeking. In this victory, there is no room for the Iranian people. Rather, when the time is ripe, these rulers can easily play Assad’s role in Iran.

Kakshar Oremar, Kurdish Journalist, Germany:
With Russia’s entry into the region, the balance of power has changed. I have interviewed several Kurdish Peshmarga and commanders who openly say that the U.S. does not want ISIS to be eliminated. Ever since, Russia entered Syria, The U.S. has changed its approach. During the past few days, authorities from the U.S. army have met with Kurdish and Iraqi authorities and now speak of attacking Mosul and Sinjar (in Iraq). With the presence of Russia in Syria, Turkey which is very worried about the Kurds’ gaining power in Syria, will no longer be able to threaten the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party. If the Turkish AK Party reaches its goals, the state of democracy will regress to the years 1993-1995. On the one hand two global powers and on the other hand regional powers have entered into a horrible war with each other. However, if a third force which supports democracy creates a powerful union, it can prevent an expanded war in the region. The Kurds are an important factor who have proved their competence in practice. These forces consist of the People’s Democratic Party and other leftist parties in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds and the anti-war forces in Iraq. We should all defend these forces. Iran’s nuclear agreement with the West has made it bolder politically in the region. Iran’s responsibility at this juncture is to resolve its internal economic and political problems. The state of human rights in Iran is atrocious. Its political parties and ethnic groups are also under pressure outside Iran. Iran’s current policies are doomed. The people should protest against the government’s foreign policy. They should not allow the nation’s funds to be spent on the war between the Houthis and the Saudis. It is not clear how the continuation of a dictatorial regime like that of Assad in Syria will help the Iranian people. The people should defend their fate and that of future generations.

This summary and translation by Frieda Afary was published by the English section of  Zamaneh on November 5, 2015.


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