The Iran-Syria Nexus: Three Viewpoints

By Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
August 6, 2013 Updated: August 6, 2013

WASHINGTON—In recent months, the Assad regime in Syria has been bolstered by Iran’s support in finances and material, while its Revolutionary Guard Corps contributes to the fighting. 

Through Iran’s intervention and Hezbollah, which is financed by Iran, Assad has been able to reclaim territory lost to the rebels and seize the initiative. This connection between Iran and Syria was the subject of a subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 31. 

Chairing the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa in a hearing titled, The Iran-Syria Nexus and its Implications for the Region, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) painted a depressing picture of death and suffering in Syria: over 100,000 have been killed; 1.85 million refugees have left the country; 4.5 million have been internally displaced. 

Ranking member Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) added that 8,000 flee per day. They seek refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt where the conflict threatens to spread, destabilizing the region. 

“Essentially, Syria has become a proxy war for competing regional forces like Iran,” said Deutch. 

Ros-Lehtinen observed that Iran and Russia are crucial arms suppliers for Assad’s forces. Tehran has sent its elite Revolutionary Guards to advise and fight with Assad’s forces, and has “recently extended an additional $4 billion line of credit to help fund his brutal campaign against the opposition,” she said.

Deutch said that, according to opposition estimates, Iran provides $500 million per month and flies in five tons of military cargo per day. He said the addition of foreign fighters—over 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—enabled Assad to reclaim territory lost to the rebels, notably around Homs and Damascus.

But there is some hopeful news for the United States. Hassan Rouhani, hailed as moderate, was elected Iran’s president and assumed the office on Aug. 3. Opinions differ radically on the meaning of Rouhani’s election and the best approach for the United States to pursue from this point on. 

The subcommittee invited three experts on the Middle East who have considerable experience with the Iran-Syria nexus. Here’s how each views the situation:

John Bolton, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

John Bolton served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. According to his resumé, he served as under secretary of state for arms control and international security from May 2001 to May 2005. 

Bolton said Iran is a state sponsor of international terrorism and through its pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it poses a direct threat to American interests and to allies in the region. “Iran has established an arc of dominance from its own territory through the al-Maliki regime in Iraq, and includes the Assad family and Ba’ath Party regime in Syria and terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Bolton believes that Iran financed the Syrian nuclear reactor of al-Kibar that was built by North Korea and destroyed by Israeli bombing in September 2007. 

Tehran perhaps still has a big stake in the nuclear and WMD programs in Syria. He said that Rouhani is “very smooth and charming,” but not to be trusted. When Rouhani was nuclear negotiator in 2003–2005, he agreed to the suspension of enrichment only because of difficulties in the enrichment and conversion processes. After the problem was fixed, Iran broke the suspension and resumed its nuclear program, Bolton said.

Bolton recommends that the United States openly support a regime change in Iran by providing material assistance to the Iranian opposition. He believes the Obama administration has made a mistake in pursuing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

“Negotiations with Tehran will never persuade the mullahs from their path toward nuclear weapons, nor will sanctions work in time to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.” 

In addition, Bolton said that Israel should be supported before, during, and after a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear program. He said the international community should be prepared to defend Israel’s “inherent right to self-defense.”

Bolton thinks the Syrian opposition should not be armed, because today it is “fragmented and unreliable.”

Daniel Brumberg, Center for Conflict Management

In contrast to Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Daniel Brumberg believes that the surprise election of President Rouhani was highly significant and provides an opening and opportunity for the United States to capitalize on. 

He said, “The United States should test him and the new government and see whether a negotiated settlement is possible.”

Brumberg is currently at the Center for Conflict Management. His firm contracts with the United States Institute of Peace, but Brumberg stated that his testimony was his own and did not represent the views of the USIP. Brumberg is the author of many articles on political and social change in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, according to a USIP biography.

Brumberg said that while it was unlikely that the new president would risk provoking the hard-liners and the supreme leader by advocating fundamental change to Iran’s approach toward Syria or Hezbollah, Rouhani will probably seek to promote a more flexible foreign policy. 

He felt that the rhetoric Rouhani used during the election signaled that he wants to change the political system by including Iranian reformist leaders. The Green Movement, which had favored openness and reform, was shut down by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian fundamentalists called the Principlists who had previously backed Ahmadinejad. Now some of these same Principlists, particularly business groups suffering from the international sanctions, want change and backed Rouhani.

If Rouhani is to improve the economy, he must negotiate to reduce or remove international sanctions, Brumberg said. Moreover, he said, if Rouhani is to succeed in opening up the political system at home and weaken the leverage of the hard-liners, he will have to reduce Iran’s disputes with its neighbors and the wider international community.

Brumberg said Iranian leaders are concerned about the “escalating sectarian conflict” in the Persian Gulf and Syria region. Another civil war in Lebanon could destabilize the entire region, and “Iraq in particular, where Sunni Jihadists are escalating their attacks on the government,” he said.

In contrast to Ambassador Bolton, Brumberg said the United States should consider modest sanctions relief as an incentive for “the new government to step away from the hardline positions of past regimes.”

Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

A third perspective was offered by Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who said it was “naive to expect a significant shift in foreign policy of the Islamic Republic because of the outcome of the presidential election.”

In his written testimony, Dubowitz referred to Rouhani as a “regime loyalist and a master of nuclear deception.” 

Rouhani was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005. He resigned because of disagreements with Ahmadinejad when the latter became president. During the presidential campaign, Rouhani blamed the country’s current top negotiator for international sanctions.

But Dubowitz warned that Rouhani has “misled the international community while relentlessly pursuing a nuclear arms program.” Dubowitz concludes that he can’t be trusted to end the bloodshed in Syria.

“If Mr. Rouhani wants to prove himself as an influential and reliable interlocutor, he must end Iran’s nefarious military and financial activities in Syria.” He needs to stop the “massacre of Syrian Muslim and Christian women and children,” he said.

Dubowitz wants the sanctions to be intensified and for the international community to bring the Iranian economy to the point of collapse. He deplored the lack of enforcement on some sanctions, such as the gold sanctions, which still allow Iran to obtain foreign exchange reserves. We are already giving sanctions relief without gaining any nuclear concessions, he said.

On the same day as the hearing, Aug. 1, the House passed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act that strengthens existing sanctions and makes it more difficult for Iran to access overseas foreign currency reserves. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor that if President Rouhani truly wants to do something positive, such as suspending enrichment, he should do it before this bill becomes law.

Dubowitz disagrees with Brumberg in offering any concessions or sanctions relief “before Tehran has satisfied all of its nuclear obligations under international law.”

Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg