THE BLOG

Who Is in Charge of Iran's Syria Policy?

09/04/2013 11:35 EDT | Updated 11/04/2013 05:12 EST

"A government which bombards its own population with chemical weapons must face the harsh consequences of it, just like Saddam [Hussein] who brought eternal shame upon himself by bombing Halabja and begot a horrific destiny."

These are not the words of United States Secretary of State John Kerry, or President François Hollande of France. The statement was allegedly made on August 29th by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian president and current Expediency Council chairman. The source of the news was just as remarkable: A Facebook profile update by Mrs. Naimeh Eshraqi, granddaughter of Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

In the morning of August 31st, Expediency Council Secretariat dismissed the Rafsanjani quotes as Mrs. Eshraqi's personal interpretation, and insisted that Rafsanjani had called Syria "a fortress of resistance against the Israeli regime." However, a few hours after the official dismissal, Rafsanjani reiterated his statement while addressing the crowds in Mazandaran province. "On the one hand, the people [of Syria] are being bombarded with chemical weapons by their own government, and on the other hand they must await American bombardments." While ILNA and other official news agencies deftly omitted "by their own government," in their quotes, audio and video recordings of the speech uploaded on Youtube document that Rafsanjani indeed accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons.

Rafsanjani's statements are significant.

Rafsanjani is the loudspeaker of President Hassan Rouhani. Both men realize that Bashar al-Assad's era is over. Rafsanjani's condemnation of use of chemical weapons reflects the Rafsanjani/Rouhani duo's willingness to sacrifice Bashar in return for continued Alawite -- and indirectly continued Islamic Republic -- influence in post Bashar Syria; and concessions from the United States in Iran's nuclear issue. Such concessions may include, but are not limited to sanctions relief.

Rafsanjani's maneuver also serves the purpose of marginalizing Rouhani's domestic opponents, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has recently expressed its support for the Syrian regime and has made explicit threats against the United States in case of military engagement in Syria.

For now, Rafsanjani and Rouhani seem to have lost the battle over Iran's Syria policy.

Rafsanjani has removed his statements from his personal website, including a statement in which he, addressing the Expediency Council, had criticized "political statements made by individuals and unofficial channels which could entail negative consequences for the foreign policy of the state," and demanded: "One must abstain from expressing unofficial and radical statements of unrelated individuals. The fundamental positions of the regime must be intelligently expressed through the official and responsible channels."

On September 2nd, Mrs. Marziyeh Afkham, newly appointed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, insisted that Rafsanjani's statements were "manipulated," and have since been "retracted" by his office.

The IRGC, on the other hand, has stepped up its rhetorical support for the regime in Syria. While Major General Qassem Suleimani, IRGC's extraterritorial operations Quds Force commander, said on September 3rd that "the people of this country are victorious against America and Syria is successful," Brigadier General Hossein Salami, IRGC deputy, warned the United States with jihad, and Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan portrayed President Barack Obama's deference to Congress as a sign of weakness.

Only four weeks into Rouhani's presidency, commanders of the Revolutionary Guards have once again demonstrated that the IRGC makes the strategic decisions in Iran and not the head of the executive. The IRGC's 1 - 0 victory over Rouhani /Rafsanjani should serve as a warning of what is in store for the nuclear negotiations with the West.