FPI Bulletin: After Nuclear Deal, Iran Doubles Down on Assad

By Tzvi Kahn

Foreign Policy Initiative

October 21, 2015

The participation of Iranian forces in Syria’s offensive against the strategic city of Aleppo belies President Obama’s claim that the nuclear deal could lead to a joint U.S.-Iranian effort to stabilize the region. Tehran's behavior, however, should come as no surprise. Since the July 14 agreement, Iran has repeatedly rejected calls for further cooperation with the United States and affirmed its support for the brutal Assad regime. The alliance serves to advance a core purpose of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: the projection of Iranian power throughout the Middle East and the undermining of American influence.
Obama’s Hopes, Iran’s Ambitions in Syria

In the days and weeks after the July 14 nuclear deal, President Obama repeatedly called for cooperation with Iran to resolve the crisis in Syria. On July 15, Obama spoke of “jumpstart[ing] a process to resolve the civil war in Syria,” a process that could not succeed without “buy-in from the Russians [and] the Iranians.” On August 9, he said the deal held out the “possibility that, having begun conversations around this narrow issue that you start getting some broader discussions about Syria.” In his September 28 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama declared that America would “work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.”
Yet Tehran has never made a secret of its support for Assad, even during the nuclear negotiations. “The Iranian nation and government will remain at the side of the Syrian nation and government until the end of the road,” said President Hassan Rouhani on June 2. Such support has already proven substantial: While precise figures for Tehran’s financial aid to Damascus remain difficult to determine, U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated that Iran provides $6 billion of annual assistance. The Islamist regime has also dispatched trainers and advisors from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
On July 18, in a speech punctuated by audience chants of “Death to America,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reaffirmed that the deal would not affect Iran’s support for Damascus. “In Syria,” he said, “the policy of the arrogance is to topple at any price the government that is known for its resistance against Zionism; our policy is the opposite of this.”
In mid-August, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with Assad in Damascus, where the Syrian leader thanked him for Tehran’s assistance. Zarif also traveled to Beirut, where he met with Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of troops to Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime. Shortly thereafter, Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior foreign policy advisor to Khamanei, called demands for Assad’s ouster “irrational.”
Tehran’s renewed commitment to Damascus culminated in recent days with reports that hundreds of troops from Iran and Hezbollah had arrived in the war-torn country to participate in a ground offensive against insurgents in the Aleppo area — a move that threatens to further prolong the war. “Sending more troops from Hezbollah and Iran only increases the shelf life of the Syrian regime, which is destined to end,” Maj. Jamil Saleh, the leader of Tajammu Alezzah, a CIA-backed Free Syrian Army faction told the Associated Press. “It will only add more destruction and displacement.”
On October 16, in perhaps the greatest blow to the Obama administration’s overtures, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, conclusively rejected the idea of any cooperation with the United States beyond the nuclear deal, effectively overruling an earlier statement of interest by President Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly. “For America negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran means penetration,” Khamenei declared on Twitter. “This is their definition of negotiation and they want to open the way for imposition. Negotiation with America is forbidden, because of its countless detriments and because of alleged advantages of which it has none whatsoever.”
Assad as Iran’s “Pillar” of Resistance
From the outset, President Obama’s call for dialogue with Iran over Syria underestimated the importance that Tehran assigns to its relationship with the Assad regime. For the Islamist regime, Syria constitutes the "pillar of the axis of resistance,” as Iranian officials routinely call it, and remains indispensable for Iranian security.
Indeed, while the secularism of the Assad regime stands in sharp contrast to the militant faith of Tehran’s ayatollahs, the alliance between Iran and Syria rests on a foundation of shared sectarian interests and common enemies. While the Alawi Shiite faith of the Assad regime substantially differs from the Twelver Shiite doctrine that prevails in Tehran, the two share an intense mutual antipathy for Sunni Muslims. For this reason, Tehran and Damascus both support Hezbollah, which seeks to establish militant Shiite control of Lebanon. The two are also united by an intense hatred of the United States and Israel. As Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah put it, “Iran’s relationship with its allies is based on ideological grounds and come before the political interests.”
The threat of regime change in Syria — especially the risk that a radical Sunni force may come to power — represents a direct challenge to Iranian influence in the region. Therefore, Iran has increasingly relied on Hezbollah to support Assad. While the terrorist organization played primarily an advisory and training role in the early stages of the conflict, its commitment grew significantly in mid-2013 after it determined, in consultation with Tehran, that the Alawite regime had sustained too many battlefield defeats to prosecute the war successfully. Thus, with Iran’s blessing, Hezbollah has reportedly dispatched as many as 6,000 to 8,000 fighters to Syria — and sustained as many as 700 to 1,000 casualties — to strengthen Assad.
Should the Assad regime fall, a new government may emerge from Syria’s Sunni majority with no concern for the interests of Shiite Iran, rendering the Islamist regime bereft of regional allies and a reduced ability to project power. Should the Khamenei regime fall, Assad would lack the financial lifeline that remains indispensable for his survival. Put differently, Iran needs Syria to fulfill core objectives that remain integral to its raison d’être; Syria needs Iran to ensure its own existence.
The Impact of the Nuclear Deal
In the weeks following the nuclear agreement, President Obama repeatedly argued that even if Iran used sanctions relief to support terror, it would not meaningfully alter the status quo. “Iran has been engaged in these activities for decades,” he said. “They engaged in them before sanctions and while sanctions were in place.”
Yet when Iran and the P5+1 announced the nuclear deal on July 14, Assad immediately understood that it marked a turning point. In a message to Khamenei, he exultantly called the deal a “great victory” and indicated that he now expected more support from Tehran. By contrast, many Syrian rebels voiced alarm. “Our fears from this agreement are an increase in Iranian influence in the region and this is what is making Assad happy,” said Iyad Shamse, the leader of a rebel group called the Asala and Tanmieh Front.
Tehran’s behavior since July 14 appears to have validated these fears. In addition to its increased support for Assad, Iran has apparently increased financial support for Hezbollah as well as Hamas, and expanded its efforts to prepare for a new round of conflict on Israel’s northern border. These developments suggest that Iran already has begun to budget its foreign operations on the basis of the financial windfall it expects to receive under the deal’s promised sanctions relief. A newly empowered — and newly emboldened — Shiite axis may constitute the grim result.
The sectarian and strategic roots of the Iran-Syria alliance ensure that Tehran will continue to reject U.S. overtures for cooperation. Whereas the United States wants peace and stability, Iran prefers the current violence to any peace process that threatens the Assad regime, which is essential for Iranian plans to achieve hegemony in the region. By promoting illusory hopes that Iran can serve as a partner for peace in Syria, the White House only prolongs a brutal civil war. Instead, U.S. policy should proceed from the premise that the only hope for peace, albeit slim, rests on international efforts to strengthen non-extremist Sunni opposition forces.