Still smarting from the latest Israeli attacks on its positions in Syria, Iran is deeply divided on how to respond. While some within the ruling establishment threaten “a fitting response” to the “Zionist aggression, others deny that there was any Israeli attack on Iran’s bases. A third group implicitly demands a grin-and-bear it response, avoiding any escalation..
Most outspoken in the first group has been Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the High Council of National Security, who says Iran’s response “will come in its time, and when it comes it will be devastating.” A milder version of the threat has come from the newly appointed Commander of the Army General Abdul-Rahim Moussavi who has said his forces are prepared for all eventualities. More interestingly, Iran’s Chief of Staff, General Muhammad-Hussein Baqeri, has offered an even milder version.
“If the enemy casts a covetous eye on our interests or conducts [even] a slight act of aggression, the Islamic Republic will give an appropriate response at an appropriate time,” Baqeri said according to regime-affiliated Press TV which is run by the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Among the generals dominating the debate is Major-General Qassem Soleimani who runs the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps which is in charge of exporting the revolution. In a brief statement on Friday he said he was prepared for “Jihad” without mentioning the Israeli attacks against Iranian troops and Afghan, Lebanese and Pakistani “volunteers for martyrdom” he has deployed in at least 12 locations in Syria.
That the debate is dominated by the military indicates the diminishing influence of the civilian part of the Islamic regime. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif have been asked to conduct a series of “diplomatic probes” in talks with British, German, French, Russian and Chinese governments. However, neither seems to have received any clear instructions regarding the objective of such moves.
The part of the establishment that appears to be in denial seems to be inspired by the entourage of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei who has maintained his silence on the Israeli attacks. As in other instances before, Khamenei prefers not to get directly involved in a confrontation that Tehran might well lose. If there is going to be a clear loss of face, Khamenei wants that to be reserved for Rouhani and his group.
Instead of focusing on the deteriorating situation in Syria, figures close to Khamenei have tried to claim victory in Lebanon where a branch of “Hezbollah,” financed and led by Iran, has managed to maintain the leadership of a coalition that includes President Michel Aoun following the parliamentary elections.
In Friday’s sermon in Tehran, Ahmad Khatami, one of the mullahs tipped as successor to Khamenei, claimed that Hezbollah’s “victory in Lebanese elections” had made the US tremble. No mention was made of Israel.
At the same time, Sa’adallah Zare’i, a strategic adviser to Khamenei claimed that “forces of resistance” led by Iran had attacked Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, provoking the Israeli counter-attacks. “In our attack (in the Golan), Israel’s principal intelligence gathering center was completely destroyed and dozens of its key personnel killed,” Zare’i claimed.
Declaring victory after a major setback is one of the old tactics of the Islamic Republic. It is sued to prevent loss of face and explain lack of any reaction where that is either impossible or regarded as too costly.
Last month, instructed by the military leadership, Zarif held talks with the European trio (Britain, Germany and France) on the possibility of a gradual withdrawal by Iran from the Yemeni conflict. Tehran claimed to be prepared to tone down support for the Houthi rebels in exchange for the recognition of its presence in Syria as a major player.
Initially, it seemed as if the three countries were tempted by the Iranian offer. However, after consultations with Washington, they decided not to take the bait. The US wants Iran out of both Yemen and Syria. Interestingly, Russia, too, seems unhappy about the presence that Iran has established in Syria close to the Lebanese border and the Israeli ceasefire line in the Golan Heights.
President Vladimir Putin hopes to stabilize Syria under his own command, an option that counters Iran’s hopes to using Syrian territory as a bunker to confront the US, Israel and Arab countries. In two meetings with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin made it clear he would not oppose Israeli action in Syria as long as it solely targeted Iranian bases and not Bashar al-Assad’s forces. It was according to the same analysis that Putin also declined an Iranian request for an “air umbrella” either by Russian air force or by the remnants of Assad’s Syrian air force.
Thus, without protection from the air, Iranian forces and their Lebanese mercenary allies are left as sitting ducks for Israeli air strikes and missile launches.
In the last two Israeli attacks, an estimated 50 Iranian personnel have been killed. Tehran authorities have tried to divert attention from the losses by forbidding public ceremonies in honor of “martyrs” or media coverage of the burials. Until now such occasions had been given maximum publicity to help create the impression that Iran was entrenched in Syria and preparing for the destruction of Israel with the help of Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Hamas.
“Putin hopes to remain the setter of agenda in Syria by enlisting support from the US, the Arab states and Turkey,” says Manuchehr Vadi’i, an Iranian analyst. “That requires pushing the Iranians out of the inner circle of decision-making in Syria. Putin doesn’t want to completely exclude Iran but isn’t prepared to allow it the space Tehran wants.”
The Russian offer is to let Iran build a base in Deir Ezzor close to Syria’s border with Iraq, far from the Lebanese border and the ceasefire line with Israel. That might reassure the US, Israel and the Arab states and persuade them to accept the reshaping of Syria in conjunction with Russia.
In Iran today, and as drums of war beat louder, the political figures are fading out as the military leadership asserts its domination. Paradoxically, however, the rising military in Tehran appears to have no stomach for a fight over Syria as its contemplate new opportunities for asserting its own power inside Iran.