Although the Iranian Shiite theocracy purportedly opposes the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, it has also been the chief supporter of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Rouhani and other government officials have thus maintained that the Assad regime should be consulted on the topic of operations against IS, and that the current bombing campaign violates that regime’s sovereignty.
Although it has not taken a particularly strong stance on the issue, much less authorized direct military involvement, the United States has expressed the belief that the Assad regime must abdicate power in favor of the moderate rebel groups fighting against it. The US has held this position with varying degrees of conviction for virtually the entire duration of the over three-year-long Syrian Civil War. Last week, the US Congress approved funding and training the moderate rebel groups, which are threatened by both the Assad regime and IS.
Rouhani’s statements against the US-led coalitions bombing campaign have specifically described them as “illegal,” in an argument that seems to presuppose the legitimacy of the ruling government in Damascus. Naturally, this claim of legitimacy is disputed by the participants in the popular rebellion, and their position has been supported on the world stage by the revelation of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and his targeting of civilian populations.
It may seem strange for Rouhani or other Iranian officials to take the position that a government deserves international recognition simply by virtue of holding power. After all, the Islamic Republic came to power only after a successful rebellion against the unpopular government of Shah Reza Pahlavi, which was supported by the West for the sake of access to Iranian oil. Of course, it is also easy to understand why current officials’ political philosophy on rebellion would have subsequently changed, now that the clerical regime is domestically unpopular and threatened by resistance organizations.
It is clear that neither the US nor much of the Syrian population recognizes the Syrian regime as legitimate, and this certainly complicates Rouhani’s simple declaration that the airstrikes are illegal. The Iranian president surely realizes that outright cooperation between the US and the Assad regime was out of the question. In light of that fact, it is worth noting that President Obama has been much more restrained in his dealings with the Assad regime than some of his political opponents in the US or his advisers would have been.
Arizona Senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain criticized the President’s bombing strategy on the basis that it ignores the Assad regime rather than confronting it directly. On a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain pointed out that Assad has killed many more of the US-supported rebels than the Islamic State has. Indeed, some of those moderate rebels have expressed fear that the US’s narrow focus on IS could put them in greater danger from the Assad regime. Furthermore, a UN investigation last week determined that regardless of the well-publicized brutality of IS, it is the Assad regime that is responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in Syria.
Contrary to Rouhani’s rhetoric, Iran’s opposition to the coalition bombing is not based on some principal of legality, but is motivated by the Iranian regime’s self-interest in the region. Presently, Iranian political influence extends to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, but the continuity of this influence is threatened by rebellions in the countries with which it is most closely allied.
But while Iranian regional goals certainly explain the country’s unwavering support for the Assad regime, they do not fully explain Rouhani’s English-language rhetoric and eagerness to confront the United States on the subject. That is better explained by the current state of Iran-US relations, and the high demands that Iran has made during the process of negotiating with the US and five other world powers over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Whether because of weak US negotiating positions, up-front sanctions relief, perceived strength from non-Western economic alliances, or simple hubris, the regime has lately shown great willingness to demand concessions from the West while offering very little in exchange.
Iran’s position on the topic of uranium enrichment – the central issue in nuclear negotiations – has not weakened a bit over the course of nine months of negotiations. But the US position has, to the extent that over the weekend US negotiators put forth a new proposal that would allow Iran to keep its enrichment centrifuges in working order, but merely disconnect the piping that connects them. Thus far, Iran has not responded to the offer, suggesting that even this proposal will not be accepted by the regime, which has repeatedly insisted that its enrichment capacity is not up for discussion.
The US’s concern over the rise of the Islamic State has apparently given Iran the impression that it has even greater leverage than before on the nuclear issue. This is evidenced by the fact that an unidentified Iranian official told Reuters on Monday that Iran would be willing to work with the US on the IS issue, but only after the US first offered even greater flexibility on the nuclear issue.
This has led some critics of the Obama administration to suggest that the piping proposal is, or could be perceived by Iran as, an example of giving into that demand. Regardless of administration’s intentions in this, Rouhani’s public condemnation of the US’s bombing campaign seems to support the notion that the regime believes itself to be in a position to make demands of the West and expect them to be accepted.