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Chemical allegations in Syria haunt ally Iran

Thursday - 8/29/2013, 9:26pm  ET

FILE-In this Tuesday, August 8, 2000 file photo, Iranian clergyman Mohammad Azadparvar, who allegedly was injured by chemical weapons in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, rests next to a picture of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at a demonstration in front of Iranian parliament in support of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For more than a generation, Iranian newspapers regularly post notices: Another veteran of the 1980s' war with Iraq has died of complications from exposure to chemical weapons from Saddam Hussein's arsenal. The claims now that Iran's Syrian allies used similar battlefield tactics, including possibly unleashing sarin gas, forced Tehran's leaders into perhaps their most difficult juncture of the nearly 30-month Syrian civil war: How much to stick by Bashar Assad if the Western allegations are backed by U.N. inspection teams. (AP photo/Vahid Salemi)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- For more than a generation, Iranian papers have regularly posted the announcements: Another veteran from the 1980s war with Iraq has died of complications blamed on exposure to chemical weapons from Saddam Hussein's arsenal. Each one is buried with a hero's honors.

The claims now that Iran's Syrian allies used similar tactics, including possibly unleashing sarin gas, has forced Tehran's leaders into perhaps their most difficult juncture of the nearly 30-month civil war. Iran's rulers could face an uncomfortable backlash at home -- and possibly stir upheavals inside its powerful Revolutionary Guard -- if they're seen as ignoring allegations and U.N. investigations into possible chemical attacks by Bashar Assad's regime.

Yet Iran remains, for the moment at least, solidly behind Assad and seeks to shift attention to efforts at blocking possible Western military action against Syria. Damascus is a critical ally for Tehran as a major foothold in the Arab world and its pathway to funnel aid to its main proxy militant, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Iran's strategy includes a series of warnings that Israel could be drawn into a wider conflict -- most likely by Hezbollah offensives -- if the U.S. and others launch attacks on Syrian government sites. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier this week described possible Western attacks as "a spark in a gunpowder store."

Tehran also is using its diplomatic leverage with Russia and China to try to slow the momentum toward possible military action.

On Thursday, Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, called possible military strikes on Syria an "open violation" of international laws. The comments, reported by state TV, followed talks by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rouhani repeated his blanket condemnations of any use of chemical weapons. But he also tried to appeal to political blocs in the West, including the U.S., that are wary of a rush to military action.

"Early judgment can be dangerous," said Rouhani, insisting more time is needed to probe the allegations that it was Assad's regime that used possible chemical agents in an Aug. 21 attack that the aid group Doctors Without Borders says killed at least 355 people. Syrian officials insist that rebels carried out the attack.

Iran's seesaw strategy of denouncing chemical weapons but not directly implicating Assad appears to underscore the ongoing debates inside Iran's leadership of just how far to stick by Assad.

Last year, several current and former Iranian diplomats published opinion articles questioning whether Tehran should stick by Assad's regime or begin to weigh alternatives. Then in October -- as the value of Iran's currency plunged -- some merchants in Tehran's main bazaar chanted against the government's financial aid to Assad's regime.

The current quandary also pushes Rouhani's government into its first serious policy test. If U.N. findings conclude that Assad's military waged a chemical attack, Rouhani may have to make a calculation: Whether standing by Assad is worth the potential blow to his overall goals of building better ties with the West and trying to end the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.

Such decisions cannot be made by Rouhani alone and must pass through Khamenei and the rest of the ruling establishment, including the Revolutionary Guard. But pressure could quickly mount to review Iran's backing for Assad in a country that has made the horrors of chemical attacks a centerpiece of its remembrances of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which was then backed by Washington.

Iran estimates 100,000 Iranian soldiers and civilians were exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons, mostly mustard and nerve gases. Tens of thousands died on the battlefields from chemical exposure and thousands more suffered serious, and sometimes fatal, aftereffects such as skin lesions and chronic breathing problems.

"There seems to be deep division in the Iranian leadership as to what to do with Assad," said Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer in Iranian affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "The moderates seem to want to distance Iran from him as he is becoming a serious diplomatic and financial liability. The conservatives, headed by the Revolutionary Guard, seem to want to continue supporting him, because they see everything and anything to do with Syria as their turf."

The claims of chemical attacks by Assad's forces could "tip the balance," he said.

"The last thing Iran needs right now is to be seen as the co-sponsor of a regime which has carried out one of the biggest sectarian massacres in this region," said the Iranian-born Javedanfar.

U.N. inspectors investigating the alleged attack are expected to leave Syria on Saturday. Speaking in Vienna, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged for the team to complete its work and issue findings before any decisions are made on possible military strikes.

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