The Guardian: By describing the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line”, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has added fuel to the war of words over the increasingly nasty war on the ground. The Guardian
Tehran Bureau – By describing the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line”, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has added fuel to the war of words over the increasingly nasty war on the ground.
With debate growing in Washington over possible US intervention to protect rebels against the forces of President Bashar al Assad, Salehi, quoted in the semi-official ISNA news agency, has sought to take the high moral ground by implying it is the rebels who might be using chemical warfare.
President Barack Obama recently said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” Assad should not cross after Washington reported it had “varying degrees of confidence” that government forces had used the nerve gas sarin on a small scale.
But in suggesting that Syrian government forces are not the perpetrators and in calling for a United Nations investigation, Salehi was far from condemning Assad’s alleged deployment of such weapons.
Tehran sees little choice but to back Assad as the civil war in Syria becomes increasingly sectarian with mainly Sunni rebels fighting a regime dominated by Allawi, an offshoot of the Shia Islam that is the majority faith in Iran.
Tehran is alarmed at anti-Shia inflammatory language from Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia. Saad al-Durihim, a faculty member of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, recently called on Sunni militants in Iraq to kill Shia civilians.
Concern over sectarian tension was also reflected in Tuesday’s speech from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah, in which he both acknowledged that Hezbollah fighters were active in Syria and warned of “very serious repercussions” if rebels damaged the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab near Damascus. Fighting around the shrine, which before the Syrian conflict was widely visited by pilgrims from both Lebanon and Iran, has been reported in recent weeks.
Nasrallah’s warning to the west that Syria had “real friends” – who would not “allow it to fall into the hands” of the US, Israel or Islamic militants – was a clear reference both to Hezbollah and Iran.
Both Nasrallah and Tehran are now trying to take the moral high ground, both to rally their own supporters and to win sympathy among moderate Sunnis.
Salehi’s description of the military use of chemicals as a “red line” reflects Tehran’s long-standing tendency to take a “principled” stand over such weapons, which it refused to employ in the 1980-88 war with Iraq although they were dropped on Iranian soldiers by the forces of Saddam Hussein.
This in turn enables Iran to highlight the “hypocrisy” of western countries over their supply of chemicals to Saddam at that time; and, in today’s world, to highlight the “hypocrisy” of the US, British and French in maintaining atomic weapons while demanding Tehran curtail its own use of nuclear technology which it insists is only for civilian purposes.
Tehran has consistently called for dialogue as to the way to resolve the conflict in Syria while also giving logistical support – including military advisers – to Assad. Hence Iran has rejected the call from Sunni regional powers, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for Assad to relinquish power early as part of a process of political change.