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Heated Words, Cool Calculation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards march during a parade commemorating the 31st anniversary of Iran-Iraq war on September 22, 2011 in Tehran, Iran (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
Iranian Revolutionary Guards march during a parade commemorating the thirty-first anniversary of the Iran–Iraq War on September 22, 2011, in Tehran, Iran. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
If you were to believe the deafening rhetoric coming out of Tehran, then you could be forgiven for thinking that the Iranians are preparing to go to hell and back again to defend Bashar Al-Assad. The actual Iranian position on Syria, however, is far more complicated that the rhetoric might suggest.

There is no denying the fact that elements in the Iranian regime have recently put up some impressive theatrics about their eagerness to save Assad from his foreign enemies. As American threats to intervene militarily in Syria have grown in recent days, a host of figures in Tehran have been outshouting each other in promising calamity for US interests in the Middle East in the event US missiles start raining down on Assad-controlled parts of Syria. Qassem Suleimani, a top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) commander in charge of foreign operations and one of Iran’s preeminent regional powerbrokers, did not mince his words a few days ago. According to Suleimani, Iran “will support Syria to the end.” These are big and far-reaching words, but should Suleimani’s threats of Iranian intervention be read literally?

The fact is that no one knows what Suleimani and his ilk in the hawkish parts of the IRGC would want Iran to do in Syria. What we do know with a high degree of certainty is that the foreign policy hawks and adventurists in Tehran often fail to set the agenda. A telling example is from Iran’s August 1998 close call with the Taliban during the civil war between the movement and the Northern Alliance. In that month, eleven Iranian diplomats, journalists and military instructors based in northern Afghanistan were seized and shot by the invading Taliban forces in the city of Herat. This represented a direct challenge to Iran and to Suleimani in particular. The Iranian military instructors were most likely deployed as part of the Quds Force, the external branch of the IRGC headed by Suleimani since 1997, to assist the Northern Alliance.

We do not have any indication of what Suleimani would have preferred to do in retaliation for the deaths of those eleven Iranians. What we do know is that for the following two weeks, the authorities in Tehran huffed and puffed and threatened the Taliban with an invasion after deploying some 200,000 troops to the border. In the end, the invasion never came. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) debated the various scenarios and in the end opted to do nothing. Going into Afghanistan after the Taliban was deemed to be a wild goose chase that would do Iran more harm than good. The cautious voices in that powerful council had prevailed. The lesson from that incident is clear: the Iranian regime can be pricked—as is the case in Syria right now—but it is not a suicidal regime. There are all sorts of possibilities for Iranian retaliation and support for Assad should the US go into the latter country with its military might, but it would be wise to take Iran’s rhetoric about going “all the way to the end” for Assad with a big pinch of salt.

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Alex Vatanka
Alex Vatanka is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Born in Iran, he was the senior Middle East analyst at Jane’s Information Group from 2001 to 2010. He is also a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the US Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS).

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