How Does Iran View the Syrian Conflict?
An Analysis of the Rhetoric Employed By the Persian Press
While peace talks between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its opponents were floundering in Montreux last month, Iran was quietly escalating its support for Damascus by increasing the number of high-level military advisors it provides to the Syrian Army. Now estimated to have as many as 10,000 operatives in Syria, Iran has committed a large amount of resources to the survival of one of its key regional allies, supporting training, intelligence, and military activities and even contributing to the pro-regime shabiha militias that have become key players in the conflict.
For the West, this alliance is often understood in purely geostrategic terms, with analysts highlighting Iran’s interest in maintaining the Assad regime as a bridge to Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon that serves as a counter to Israel. While this is undoubtedly the case, this account is far removed from the narrative pushed forth in the Persian press. Here, support for Assad is couched almost exclusively in moralistic terms, painting Iran as concerned only with securing peace and justice for Syria and its people. Though supporters of the Syrian opposition wholeheartedly reject this line of thought, a complete analysis of this reasoning is essential for a full understanding of Iran’s role in the conflict because it provides insight into the worldview that is the foundation of the Islamic Republic’s geopolitical strategy.
The Iranian Narrative
In Iran, the media is heavily censored. Though the election of President Hassan Rouhani has slightly improved conditions for journalists, they are still “defenseless” against the judiciary and therefore unable to fully exercise their independence. In no arena is this more problematic than foreign policy. According to the recently released Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom Index,
Iranian authorities continue to control news coverage strictly, especially when it concerns its ally, the Assad regime, the Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria, and Iran’s financial aid. Any coverage of these subjects is regarded as “endangering national security.”
Because of this, the rhetoric employed by the press can be equated with the propaganda pushed by the government, giving insight into not only how Iran views the Syrian conflict, but into how it sees the world.
The fundamental point of divergence between the states that support Assad (namely Russia and Iran) and those who back the opposition is the legitimacy of the regime. In Iran, where a moralistic narrative is pushed in the Persian press to justify the regime’s support for the Syrian dictator, legitimacy is paramount, with all resulting actions a consequence of this core belief. On the other hand, a purely geostrategic explanation for Iran’s backing of Assad dictates that support is necessitated by realist power and security interests, and thus legitimacy becomes a less important afterthought granted ex post facto in order to achieve these goals.
For Iran, Assad’s legitimacy is built upon a foundation that emphasizes the rights of the sovereign state and is grounded in both international law and the will of the Syrian people. This argument often begins with a historical reminder that draws off Iran’s own struggles to secure its own independence and thus stresses the importance of upholding the norm of non-interference. Reminding readers that Western actions in the Middle East “have contributed to an atmosphere in which a… power vacuum rules the entire region,” this line of reasoning begins with the assumption that any form of intervention will have negative consequences.
Building off this, the Iranian press often asserts that Western intervention never occurs for altruistic reasons; rather, it is “motivated by a desire for hegemony.” This, combined with the claim that interventions are intrinsically detrimental to both the state and its people, forms the basis for a rigid adherence to the norm of absolute sovereignty in regards to Syria.
What is more, any form of support for the opposition runs counter to the will of Syria’s citizenry. “70 percent of Syrians will now vote for Bashar Assad,” says one columnist, falsely claiming to be citing a Gallup poll. “Even after three years of war, destruction, pressure, displacement, and extreme hardship, the majority of Syrian people are in favor of the government,” says another. Assad’s popularity, coupled with the fact that interference would serve only to destabilize the state, harm the Syrian people, and serve the interests of Western powers, provides legitimacy to the regime and serves as a starting point to justify active support.
If this premise of legitimacy is accepted, it facilitates the construction of other arguments that can be used to fashion a moral impetus to intervene on behalf of Assad. The first deals with painting the opposition as “terrorists.” While Iran has historically been reticent to provide an exact definition of terrorism, its proposal at the 1987 International Conference on Terrorism in still useful in revealing its perspective today. Here, Iran interpreted terrorism as “an act carried out to achieve an inhuman and corrupt objective…, involving threat(s) to security of any kind and (a) violation of rights acknowledged by religion and mankind.”
Because the terms “inhuman” and “corrupt” are inherently subjective, whether or not an organization is deemed to be a terrorist group depends on the virtue of its end goal. Here, groups are defined by cause rather than tactics. In other words, if an organization takes up arms for just principles, it is precluded from being characterized as a terrorist group. But if its objectives are the “destruction of Syria and Lebanon at the same time,” as is the case for the opposition in Syria, it can then be classified as a terrorist organization.
Having now created a rhetorical framework in which opposition forces are understood to be terrorists, the next step in the argument seeks to implicate the states supporting the revolution. Highlighting the presence of foreign fighters, the press is quick to point out that all of the rebels are terrorists. Therefore, any state that supports them is, by definition, sponsoring terrorism. “All opposition groups are affiliated with one of the main sources of terrorism – Saudi Arabia, Zionists, or Western countries,” says one paper. “[These countries have] their hands stained with the blood of millions and are the seedbed of terrorism and instability in the world.” Perceiving itself to be facing a threat this large, it is no surprise Iran has tried to do something about it.
For the Iranian press, an accurate understanding of the situation in Syria begins with accepting the legitimacy of the regime, a premise that necessitates negative conclusions about the opposition and its international backers. While news outlets are careful to avoid explicitly mentioning Iran’s direct involvement in the war, they do formulate the basis of an argument that can be used to justify intervention. Indeed, if the reasoning presented in the media is accepted as true, support for Assad becomes both a moral and strategic imperative. This altruistic narrative is then contrasted sharply with what are seen as the cold, self-interested calculations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the West.
What this analysis shows is that divisions between Iran and the US on Syria run deeper than geopolitics. Indeed, they are rooted in what can only be described as two fundamentally divergent worldviews entirely antithetical to one another. With this in mind, the differences between the two sides seem all the more intractable, and the chances for a diplomatic solution in Syria seem all the more grim.
Chris Looney is a Research Analyst at the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization (SREO), based in Gaziantep, Turkey. His work on Syria has been published by Syria Comment, Syria Deeply, and the Huffington Post, among others, and he has appeared on NPR. SREO publishes weekly translations of Persian articles pertaining to Syria, which can be found here.
Image: Phillip Maiwald (Nikopol), CC