How Will Iran Respond to US Missile Attack in Syria?

by Shireen T. Hunter

Iran has been a major supporter of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s beleaguered president, throughout its civil war, which has entered its sixth year. In fact, until Russia decided to conduct airstrikes in Syria in September 2015, Iran was the only country that actively and meaningfully supported the Syrian regime. In addition to providing military and other support, Iran also enlisted the backing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah for Assad. As volunteers from Sunni states and communities poured in to join various Sunni terrorist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Iran mobilized Shia volunteers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the so-called “Defenders of the Shrines,” to join the fighting on the Assad’s side.

Iran’s decision to help Syria was risky, but understandable. Assad’s fall, resulting in a drastic shift in Syria’s regional and international orientation, would have a dramatic impact on the overall balance of Middle East power. To begin with, it would undermine Hezbollah’s position, which inevitably would deprive Iran of a source of influence in the region and a kind of weak deterrent against potential Israeli attacks on Iran. Moreover, a change in the nature of the Syrian leadership would make it more difficult for Iran to keep its links and provide assistance to Hezbollah.

A power shift in Syria would also impact Iraq’s internal political dynamics in ways damaging to elements favorably disposed towards Iran and helping elements that either actively oppose or at least do not support tight relations with Iran.

Ostensibly, the US missile attack against a Syrian airbase on the night of April 6-7 was in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons—although it denies doing so and there has not yet been an independent inquiry—the attacks should be seen in the broader context of changing US policy in the Middle East, including Iraq. The Trump administration seems determined to reduce drastically, if not totally eliminate, Iran’s influence in Iraq and to stop whatever involvement it has in Yemen. Last month’s visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Washington, and the visit to Baghdad of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were related to efforts to pull Iraq away from Iran’s influence. According to reports in Iran’s media, Kushner apparently gave Abadi a list of fifty-four people whom the US wants excluded from involvement in the Iraqi government. One can guess that all these people have ties to Iran.

In addition, the US missile attacks might even have been a dress rehearsal for possible future attacks on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly thought so when he said that the attacks were also a message to Iran and North Korea, adding the latter for good measure.

Moreover, for all practical purposes, Pakistan has joined Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen by allowing its former chief of the armed forces, General Raheel Sharif, to accept the command of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, despite considerable skepticism in Pakistan about the wisdom of this step and its negative impact on Pakistan’s relations with Iran. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continually ranting about Iran, Tehran is like a person with its back to the wall facing a hostile mob.

Given such conditions, there is not much that Iran can do to counter US actions in Syria, unless it wants to invite brutal retribution. So far, however, Iran’s reaction to the missile attacks has actually been muted. Its leaders have essentially limited themselves to verbal condemnation of the attacks, including in the United Nations, questioning the allegation that the Assad government used chemical weapons and emphasizing Iranian opposition to their use.

Whether Iran continues this cautious approach is likely to depend in part on Russia’s behavior. If Moscow does not escalate tensions in Syria by launching its own attacks on some of the terrorist groups and other opponents of the Syrian government, it is highly unlikely that Iran would run unnecessary risks that could make it the future target of US attacks. By contrast, if Russia, after investing so much of its prestige in its Syrian adventure, chooses brinkmanship, Iran might be dragged into the game, particularly by allowing Russia use of its air bases.

In fact, following Russia’s entry into Syria’s civil war, Iran’s role there has diminished, although over the years it has paid more there than any other outside country in both blood and treasure. Indeed, Iran’s future prospects for influence in Syria are grim. If peace breaks out, what Syria would need is money for reconstruction, which Iran lacks. Aid would have to come from Western, Arab, and international sources. At that point, Syria would presumably no longer be ruled by the Alawite minority and thus would return to the Arab fold, which again excludes Iran. Eventually, that would also be the case in Iraq, although there Iran would retain some influence because of proximity and religious kinship.

At this point, Iran’s priority should be to focus on its own immediate security interests, paramount among which is averting a possible US attack. Thus, Iran should avoid not only taking risks but even the appearance of doing so. In the longer term, Iran should abandon its illusions of Muslim unity and disengage from the Arab world beyond what is necessary to protect its security and well-being. It should let the Arabs liberate Palestine, since Iran’s championing of this cause has only earned it the enmity of Arabs, including Palestinians. Most important, it should not provide either Arab states, Israel, or the US with excuses to bring upon it the wrath of the international community.

Photo: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad meets with Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei in 2010

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.

SHOW 9 COMMENTS

9 Comments

  1. Yes Virgile another defeatist article from Shireen Hunter on Iran. The only reason that Iran is a fortress, blocking the takfiri terror that has plagued the region and Europe, is because Iran is “fighting them over there instead of at home”.

    You will never read a good assessment of Iran’s geopolitical position from this writer.

  2. Oddly, this defeatist article ignores the economic dimension of Iran’s relevant history. The invasion of Syria by U.S./Qatari/Saudi salafist mercenaries in 2011 was precipitated by announcement of the Iran/Iraq/Syria Friendship Pipeline project, which aims to bring natural gas from the South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field in Iran to market in Europe via pipeline from Iran through Iraq to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. That condensate field straddles Iran and Qatar. Because Qatar must transport natural gas to Europe via the Suez Canal, it could not compete economically with the planned Friendship Pipeline. Syria was promptly invaded by Qatari-funded salafist mercenaries freshly blooded from the sacking of Libya, armed with weapons provided by the CIA. The Friendship Pipeline, which would provide natural gas in exchange for non-U.S. dollar currencies, would be blocked violently.

    Iran needs the capital that would flow from completion of the Friendship Pipeline project, so has a major economic incentive to defend the Assad government. On the other side of the fence, Qatar and Saudi Arabia both want a pipeline that runs through northern Syria to Turkey to serve the European market; we are watching that goal play out with Coalition efforts to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria and an independent Kurdistan state in northern Syria and Iraq, spanning the route desired for the Qatar/Saudi/Syria pipeline.

    The article also ignores the fact that Iran has an economic weapon far more potent than an atomic bomb, the ability to block the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, through which over 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes on its way to market from Gulf Coast nations. Should Iran block those Straits, blocking the sale of Gulf Coast oil in exchange for U.S. dollars, the western economic system would collapse in tatters for it is the Gulf Coast states’ insistence on being paid in dollars that allows the U.S. to run enormous trade deficits year and year without suffering collapse of its currency.

    Via missiles stationed in the Iranian mountains to the west of the Straits and via Iran’s large fleets of mine-laying mini-submarines and fast patrol boats — as Iran’s top naval commander Habibollah Sayyari said — closing the Persian Gulf to oil tanker traffic at the Strait of Hormuz would be “easier than drinking a glass of water.”

    U.S. Navy tests of its mine-sweeping technology about three years ago establish that the U.S. is ill-equipped to clear mines in the Straits should Iran plant that area with mines. And oil supertankers would be easy targets for Iran’s missiles, which are so close and fly so low that the U.S. would have slight success in downing them before they strike their targets.

    In summary, Iran has a very large economic incentive to support the existing Syrian government and has a major economic weapon to deter any attempt at a major invasion. Those two economic factors cannot realistically be ignored when viewing political maneuvering involving Iran because that leads to a far more pessimistic appraisal of Iran’s power in the Mideast.

  3. PM, excellent points in light of the facts that today’s wars are driven by economic incentives!

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