Has Iran’s Position on Syria Changed?

by Jasmin Ramsey

*This post has been updated.

Jim refuses to join Twitter, but today Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani provided him with another reason to reconsider:

An Iranian official criticizing the use of chemical weapons, which Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used (with US assistance) to kill hundreds or even thousands of Iranians during the bloody Iran-Iraq war, is nothing new. What’s shocking is that Iran’s president seems to be endorsing force to prevent chemical weapons-use at a time when the US is positioning itself to strike Iran’s only regional ally, Syria. And as Golnaz Esfandiari reminds us, he made a similar statement on Saturday.

Iran expert Suzanne Maloney tells me that while we shouldn’t interpret too much from one statement, Rouhani’s words could indicate a “remarkable shift in the official posture of the Iranian government on the role of the international community” and “even on the sensitive issue of Syria” — but let’s backtrack for a moment.

For starters, it doesn’t appear like Rouhani tweeted this message by his mistake. Look at the tweets preceding it:


And consider his most recent tweet as of now, which appeared one hour after his “notice” to the international community:

Nothing has since been removed, revised, or added to Rouhani’s English Twitter account. His Persian account doesn’t feature these tweets.

What’s even more fascinating about all this is that at least according to news reports, Iran’s position on intervention in Syria has been what it was when the disgraced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president: don’t do it. State-run and semi-official Iranian news sites are dominated with statements from Iranian officials warning against an outside military attack.

Rouhani also refrained from naming Syria’s rebels as the aggressors when he acknowledged chemical weapons-use in Syria on Saturday — the same day that Iran announced Syria would allow weapons inspectors into the site of the alleged attack. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did reportedly blame the rebels, which he called “terrorists”, for using the weapons in “escalating the crisis”, so why did Rouhani hold back?

While cautioning against reading too much into all this so soon, Maloney, a former State Department policy advisor, told me on the phone that all this made her recall Hashemi Rafsanjani’s first term when he “managed to persuade the leadership of the Islamic Republic to remain neutral to the UN-backed international military campaign to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.”

She continued, “This is obviously very different because of the alliance of Iran and Syria and if so, would be an even more dramatic gesture, but it appears that Rouhani is trying to track a more moderate course on Iran’s foreign policy and even on the sensitive issue of Syria.”

“The conventional wisdom is that Rouhani would not have enough wiggle room on Syria, that he would be forced to accede to a hardline position that Iran’s security forces advocate — whether or not the revelation of alleged chemical weapons usage alters that or if Rouhani is taking this opportunity to signal a different approach than what we’ve seen from Tehran over the years, we’ll have to see,” said Maloney, who can also be found on Twitter (I’m nudging Jim).

Maloney added that whatever was discussed in the conversation between Zarif and UN Undersecretary Jeffrey Feltman during his surprise visit to Tehran this week could also be indicative of why Rouhani has made these unusual statements. Though we shouldn’t rush to conclusions, Rouhani’s words are not “terribly subtle,” she said.

(Interestingly, while serving as US ambassador to Lebanon when its Prime Minister Rafic Harriri was killed, Feltman accused the Assads of being behind the assassination.)

There have been varying interpretations among analysts here about how Iran would respond to intervention in Syria, ranging from: it will almost certainly have a negative impact on the nuclear negotiations to, Iran has too much to lose on that front to sacrifice its own interests for its ally.

That debate may be concluded in the near future, but all this brings to mind Farideh’s post from July 2012, where she took a hard look at Iran’s Syria policy. At that time, she noted that Iran seemed to be toeing the Russian line on Syria: “The Iranian government is undoubtedly aware that Syria is in a mess. But in the coming months expect Iran’s response to be more reactive than proactive despite proclamations and posturing that suggest otherwise.”

Is her conclusion, written more than a year ago, still applicable today?

Update: Iranian journalist Omid Memarian tells me that Rouhani’s comments could be focused on the rebels. In other words, perhaps Rouhani is saying that the international community should use all its “might” to stop chemical weapons use by the rebels. If that’s true, Maloney’s suggestion that Iran could be changing its stance on the international community still rings true.

Update II: Some have questioned whether the Twitter account linked to here is operated by Hassan Rouhani or his staff. I base my take on the following: 1) he has never denied that it’s his account; 2) it seems to be in line with Rouhani’s official statements and his talks and appearances etc.; 3) Twitter is prohibited in Iran, which makes public acknowledgement problematic; 4) my Iranian contacts who are usually in-the-know about these things say they can’t see any reason to doubt it.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. In what way do you find Ahmadinejad “disgraced” – or is this to get better readership?

  2. We should lift at least SOME sanctions on Iran as we get ready to attack Syria. They don’t have to be major sanctions, but we should at least throw them some type of token. We could merely state that we won’t be as rigorous at enforcing some sanctions as we have been.

    Then we should tell the Iranians that the sanctions will be restored if they retaliate against us for attacking Assad or if they refuse to continue nuclear talks. This needs to be followed with a promise to lift more sanctions upon completion of the talks.

    If we show the Iranians a good faith gesture they may be more inclined to let a (limited) attack against Assad go without much protest. And if Rowhani isn’t blowing smoke about being more flexible in nuke talks, then modest sanctions relief might give him impetus to stand up to those who want the talks to go nowhere.

  3. Robin, It is exactly this kind of attitude ” we should at least throw them some kind of token” which the Iranians resent most and unwilling to sit acoss the table facing arrogance!!
    Basically, I agree with your suggestion to go forward.

  4. Max, You are certainly correct–Iranians don’t want to be thrown only tokens. But unfortunately, real sanctions relief–the type that would really make a big difference to them–is a political non-starter. Obama would have to get Congress to repeal many of the biting sanctions, and he may need international cooperation to lift some as well. The only thing available in Obama’s toolbox right now are token gestures. So it is better to throw them a bone and hope they will bite than to just attack without even trying.

    Unfortunately, if you look at Rouhani’s tweets today it is look like he is trying to throw the breaks on U.S. interventionism. I wonder if his colleagues got wind of his treat and called him to the tool shed.

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