Sunday, September 4, 2011

Iran: Planning For The Post-Assad Period

By Huda al Hussein
Is Khamenei’s Iran concerned for the people of Syria, or is it solely concerned about its regional plans and ambitions? Iran has today – via Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi – called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to respond to his people's legitimate demands, whilst warning NATO of becoming embroiled in a “quagmire from which it would never be able to escape.”
Salehi's call confirms that even Iran, the last remaining ally of the Syrian regime, does not believe everything that it is saying with regards to it embarking on a process of internal reform that requires six months to be implemented. The reason for this warning [from Tehran] is that Iran does not want to find itself embroiled in a war outside of its own borders. For what if Tehran becomes embroiled in such a war, and then the expected popular uprising breaks out in Iran?
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of speculation about how long the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intends to uphold his alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Until recently, the Iranians were criticizing Turkish politicians for acting "as if al-Assad’s Syria is on the verge of collapse.” The Iranian leadership even said that if it were forced to choose between Syria and Turkey, then it would choose Syria without hesitation. A number of articles to this effect were published in the media, particularly publications affiliated to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
If you look at the changes in the positions taken by Iran [towards Syria], this reveals that the Iranians are planning for a possible political change in Damascus, in the same manner as the Turks. The Turks began by urging al-Assad to embark on the legitimate demands for reform demanded by the people. Following this, the Turks took a harder-line, receiving groups of Syrian political dissidents and refugees, and then Turkish President Abdullah Gul came out to say that al-Assad’s actions so far have been insufficient, or in other words that the regime should go.
Iran today itself is preparing for a post-Assad Syria.
Confirmed information coming out from Tehran indicates that despite the considerable military and economic support that Iran is providing to Syria in a bid to rescue the regime from collapse, Iran is preparing itself for “the day after al-Assad.” In this regard, Iran is considering [political] elements that can rise up to take power in Syria, and is studying all options with regards to protecting and maintaining Iran’s influence in the country, as well as the region, in order to consolidate the interests of the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian Supreme National Security Council has devoted itself to studying the key causes for concern for Iran with regards to the Syrian crisis, and the difficulties that Tehran is expected to face should the al-Assad regime collapse. The Supreme National Security Council came up with a set of recommendations in this regard, the majority of which have received the approval of Iranian Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei. The Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, had presented his list of recommendations to Khamenei on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan.
Jalili stressed that the Iranian Supreme National Security Council believes that if the al-Assad family rule in Syria comes to an end after 41 years in power, this will create a power vacuum that other countries – particularly Turkey, the US, and other Western states – will attempt to fill. Jalili reportedly informed Khamenei that the Supreme National Security Council members believe that foreign states will try to exploit any new leadership in Syria and direct it away from the Islamic Republic, particularly as these countries supported anti-regime elements both inside and outside of Syria. The Iranian Supreme National Security Council has therefore warned that the collapse of the al-Assad regime may create a number of logistical difficulties for Tehran. Iran’s fears are that:
Firstly, that the critical route through which Iran provides Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinians – particularly the Hamas movement – with military and logistical supplies and funding will be blocked.
Secondly, that the main source through which Iran provides support to resistance groups, namely Syria, will be shut down.
According to the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, these two scenarios are highly likely to occur [should the al-Assad regime collapse], either due to the complete state of chaos that will prevail in post-Assad Syria, or if the new government does not want to cooperate or participate in the "regional resistance" against the "enemies of Islam."
Due to these fears, the Iranian Supreme National Security Council has recommended that Tehran should prepare itself for the day after the collapse of the al-Assad regime. In addition to this, recommendations included Tehran reviewing potential scenarios that would see it withdraw its support from al-Assad in order to protect Iranian interests.
Jalili also stressed that protecting freedom and the liberation of Muslims, as well as opposing any foreign intervention in internal affairs, must be considered more important than Iran's backing of the al-Assad regime or Hezbollah.
It is clear that Tehran is considering the best way to proceed with the proposals put forward by the Iranian Supreme National Security Council. A high-level discussion of these proposals was held in Khamenei's office, in the attendance of the Iranian Supreme Guide himself as well as Chairman of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili, Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Major General Sayyid Hassan Firouzabad, Iranian Intelligence Minister Haider Moslehi, al-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani, and a number of senior foreign policy consultants.
During the meeting, it was agreed that any new Syrian leadership must upheld resistance [to Israel]. Accordingly, the Iranian intelligence apparatus was assigned to make extensive clandestine contacts with new (potential) Syrian leaders outside of al-Assad’s inner circle and help strengthen them. Simultaneously, al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani was instructed to take measures to "exterminate elements of the [Syrian] opposition who cannot be trusted”; this includes prominent Syrians who call for more liberal and democratic values and can be recognized by the West [as potential Syrian leaders]. This also includes those who are ready to reach a compromise or settlement with the "Zionists to regain the Golan Heights."
During the meeting, Suleimani reportedly said, tactically, "We will adopt the techniques that were previously adopted successfully in Iraq and which are now being applied in Egypt and Libya." (Suleimani did not detail these tactics during the meeting)
Whilst Iran viewed Damascus as a major investment for a long period of time, especially in "resisting" common enemies, Iranian leaders now view the al-Assad regime as a burden on their shoulders, particularly as the crisis continues in Syria with no end in sight.
In reference to the pragmatic nature of strategic relations between Syria and Iran over the past years, Iranian Intelligence Minister Haider Moslehi – who is also a religious cleric (but does not hold the rank of Ayatollah) – has reportedly stated that “neither al-Assad senior or junior were ideal partners for Iran.” This reflects an implicit criticism of the secular nature of the Baathist regime in Syria. Such criticism is often repeated behind closed doors in Iran, especially during the meeting of some of the more hard-line Ayatollahs.
Khamenei approved all the measures put forward during this meeting with the objective of ensuring that Iran avoids any harm should the Syrian regime collapse. However the Supreme Guide also stressed the need for caution and instructed that these measures should be kept top secret, and that no public measure should be taken that could increase the pressure on al-Assad in Syria.
This once again confirms that Tehran’s interests are more important than all the relations which the Islamic Republic [of Iran] has established with other countries and organizations. However, if the Syrian regime has become exhausted, then all of Iran’s “tentacles” in neighbouring states may also become exhausted in the same manner, indeed many Iranian affiliates have already begun to exhibit symptoms of such exhaustion. The Syrian regime is in a race against time, and this is a race that will be decided by the regime’s ability to continue to reject all "recommendations and offers" and by its ability to continue to believe that it is not in trouble and that power is not slipping from its grasp. However, this latest Iranian decision means that the “chess” game [between Iran and Syria] has changed, and that in the end it might be Khamenei’s hand that “checkmates” the Syrian regime. This is because Iran is not interested in going to war for anybody else. Tehran is only interested in defending its own regime. And so Lebanon will not serve as the battlefield to defend the “life” of the Syrian regime this time around, in the same manner that it was utilized as a battlefront in 2006 to defend Iran's nuclear program. Iran, which is geographically distant from Israel, knows this well, as does Hezbollah.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 03/09/2011
-Huda al Husseini is a prominent Lebanese writer

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