Wall Street Journal: Iran is opening a public debate over its approach toward Syria’s crisis, with some diplomats publicly questioning whether Tehran should continue supporting Syria’s regime.
The Wall Street Journal
Tehran Diplomats Challenge Support of Regional Ally Assad, Raising Rare Public Questions on Iranian Policy
By FARNAZ FASSIHI
BEIRUT—Iran is opening a public debate over its approach toward Syria’s crisis, with some diplomats publicly questioning whether Tehran should continue supporting Syria’s regime.
The diplomats’ statements, in interviews and online pieces, suggest a split of opinions within Tehran, the most important regional ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
The debate emerged ahead of diplomat Kofi Annan’s visit to Tehran this week, amid questions in the international community over whether to include Iran in negotiations for a Syrian peace plan.
Iran’s foreign policy rests largely with the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country is still considered a staunch ally of Mr. Assad. But dissent over Iran’s support of Mr. Assad has appeared to grow, largely from diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, signaling to some analysts that Tehran is at least considering a backup plan—such as reaching out to the opposition and advocating reform and a quiet transition—should Mr. Assad fall.
“The entire world is against Syria and we are standing here defending Syria, a country accused of crimes against humanity. We are not playing this game very well,” Mohamad Ali Sobhani, a current diplomat who has served as Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan, said in an interview published last week on the semiofficial news website Khabaronline.com.
Mr. Assad’s days are clearly numbered and Iran will lose influence and interest if it doesn’t shift course, Mr. Sobhani added.
Divisions within Iran’s power circles appeared to be on display during Mr. Annan’s brief visit to Tehran, where he met with two officials from different ends of the political spectrum. The special envoy on Syria sought Iran’s participation in helping ending the violence in Syria, saying Iran’s close ties to Mr. Assad would let it play a key role in the peace talks.
In talks with Mr. Annan, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said all parties should “make efforts to help find the best way out of the problem.” In earlier comments to Reuters, Mr. Salehi said Iran supports democratic transition in Syria and said Mr. Assad should transit out of power in 2014 elections.
Chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili took a harder tone, urging Mr. Annan to stop the meddling of powers like U.S. in Syria’s affairs and stop the transfer of arms to terrorists revolting in Syria.
On Wednesday, Iran offered what amounted to an informal referendum on the split. The website Khabaronline—which is affiliated with Ali Larjini, the parliamentary house speaker who is close with Supreme Leader Khamenei—posted a picture of Messrs. Annan and Salehi, asking readers to comment on Iran and Syria. Opinions diverged, with one poster saying Iran is “a piece of the puzzle to resolve Syria’s problem” and another calling on Iran to stay out of Syria because “Damascus is going the way of Tripoli, Libya, with a one-year delay.”
U.S. and European officials, however, have said recently that they haven’t seen signs that Tehran is preparing to break with Mr. Assad and still see Tehran providing strong military and diplomatic support to Damascus.
On Wednesday, Supreme Leader Khamenei alluded to Syria in a speech, saying that Iran “will defend and firmly stand with any Muslim country that opposes Israel and the U.S.”
The international diplomats said Iranian officials have made contacts with the Syrian opposition, going back months, but they view that as a form of political hedging.
“We see them doubling down in their support, even if Iran is concerned about Assad’s tactics,” said a European official working on Iran. “Do we see Iran seriously planning for Assad’s fall? No.”
The Obama administration has so far rejected Mr. Annan’s plan to bring Iran into the diplomacy seeking to end the Syrian conflict, citing Tehran’s alleged support for Mr. Assad.
“Iran is definitely part of the problem in Syria. It is supporting, aiding and abetting the Assad regime materially and in many other ways, and it has shown no readiness to contribute constructively,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Wednesday. “We have taken the view…that it is not at this point prepared to play a constructive role.”
Even so, some Iranian diplomats’ comments represent a sharp departure from the Islamic Republic’s official policy of defending and supporting Mr. Assad at any cost.
In April, Mohamad Shariatai Dehaghan, former cultural attaché in Iran’s embassy in Damascus for four years, said Syria’s uprising was a legitimate popular movement. He contradicted the official line in Iran and Syria that foreign meddling and terrorists were orchestrating the uprising.
“Iran should not do anything in its diplomacy that would put it in a confrontation with the Syrian people. We will pay the price if we continue to encourage violent crackdowns on people,” Mr. Dehaghan said in an interview published in Iranian Diplomacy, a foreign-policy website founded by a former ambassador that says it is dedicated to “advancing Iran’s national interests.”
Iran will likely continue to publicly support Mr. Assad because of its strategic interest in Syria, analysts said.
“There is a clear division within the regime on Syria. Khamenei’s hard-line approach on Syria may not prevail because influential people like [former president Hashemi] Rafsanjani are publicly saying we have become isolated and lost alliances with Arabs and it’s time to be rational,” said Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.
The official media, mute for a long time on the Syrian revolt, has also started broadcasting and publishing scenes from carnage and civilian casualties, such as the massacre in Houla.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. said it is considering blocking the renewal of a U.N. observer mission in Syria this month if the Security Council doesn’t threaten economic sanctions against Damascus to stop its violent suppression of a growing insurgency, diplomats said.
The U.N. mission of 300 observers—suspended for the past month—expires on July 20 and needs U.S. support for the council to extend it.
—Jay Solomon in Washington and Joe Lauria at the U.N. contributed to this article.