The View From Tehran

Juan Cole points out the Islamic Republic is conflicted over its ally’s use of chemical weapons:

Although he later had to walk it back, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani deplored the Syrian government’s use of gas against its own people, and Tehran-watchers are convinced that the Baath army’s action has provoked a heated debate within the closed Iranian elite. Current Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has condemned all chemical weapons use. Because Tehran backs the Syrian Baath government, it has publicly taken the same position as Russia, that the rebels gassed themselves. That allegation is not plausible, and it is clear that even some high ranking Iranian political figures have difficulty saying it with a straight face.

On the other hand, Scott Lucas notes that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seem ready for vengeance should the US decide to strike:

While the Guards are careful not to say that they will respond with direct attacks against American interests — e.g. through troops in Syria, anti-aircraft support to the Assad regime, or blockage of the Straits of Horumz — its leaders are [signaling] that the Islamic Republic would respond via allied groups by carrying out unspecified attacks against American interests in the Middle East. Revolutionary Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari threatened on Saturday: “The US imagination about limited military intervention in Syria is merely an illusion, as reactions will be coming from beyond Syria’s borders.” Jafari’s warning extended to any countries who joined Washington in the attacks, saying they would face “immediate crises in their national security”.

Alireza Nader examines the struggle between Rouhani and Iran’s hardliners:

Could Rowhani win them over, or even manage to outmaneuver the most recalcitrant Guards officers? This is a possibility considering Rowhani’s sharp political skills and the economic pressures faced by Tehran. But we shouldn’t underestimate the capability of U.S. military strikes against Syria to undermine nuclear negotiations, especially if they inflict significant damage on Assad. …

The key question is whether [the hardliners] will prevent [Rowhani] from adopting a softer line. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a stalwart supporter of the Assad regime, which he views as the frontline of “resistance” against Israel and the United States. Khamenei, despite his supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons, is less likely to care about Assad’s chemical use. He appears to view Syria through a very cold and calculating lens; Tehran must support Assad, as the regional influence and even the existence of the Iranian regime would be in jeopardy without him. Khamenei may also fear a retreat from this steadfast position could endanger Iranian deterrence vis-à-vis the United States in the future. Today Damascus, tomorrow Tehran.

Sune Engel Rasmussen thinks Iran would be better off if it abandoned Assad:

Iran’s support for Assad [is] financially costly and strains an economy already suffering under sanctions, inflation, and widespread mismanagement. This is partly why Iran wouldn’t be able to afford a proportionate response to a U.S. attack on Syria. As Meir Javedanfar has argued, Iran wouldn’t want to risk the loss of hard-to-replace anti-aircraft systems and fighter aircrafts, or to expose its nuclear facilities to attacks from Israel. …

[T]here are plenty of reasons Iran might have already cut Assad loose, were it not for the fact that Syria is Iran’s most important regional ally. But that relationship is changing. The fall of Saddam Hussein has paved the way for much friendlier relations between Iran and Iraq and rendered Syria less vital for Iran than it used to be. So there is a good chance that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would be willing to “cut the head off the snake” in Damascus and keep the body. Assad is not as important for Tehran, as is ensuring that Syria’s power structure is friendly to Iran’s interests. Aware that a negotiated solution is the only way to achieve that, Iran has long called for political reforms in Syria.

Karl Vick adds that Iran could dramatically improve its image by working to end Assad’s use of chemical weapons: 

If, as a crucial ally of Assad, Tehran can help coax the Syrian dictator to amend his behavior — perhaps by a dramatic gesture such as surrendering its stockpiles of WMDs to a third party, like Russia — the implications would be immense. Not only would chemical and biological weapons exit the Syrian theater, where combatants include Islamist extremists, but the West would also have an encouraging answer to the question of whether the Iranians, represented by a newly elected leadership, can negotiate in good faith on the question of controlling weapons of mass destruction.