Iran's Leaders Disagree on Propping Up Syria's Assad

Drama behind the scenes.

Two important developments in Iran have finally brought into open a simmering issue that has divided the Iranian leadership since at least 2011. First, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, his deputy for Arab and African Affairs. Amir-Abdollahian had led Iran’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria. Less than a day later, on Monday, June 20, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, issued an angry and blunt statement in which he threatened Bahrain’s rulers, declaring that they would pay a heavy price for their decision to revoke citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia majority.

The two seemingly unrelated developments are actually tightly linked. They represent another manifestation of the fierce power struggle in Iran between President Hassan Rouhani and his reformist and moderate supporters, and the hard-liners led by the high command of the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More importantly, however, they also bring to light a deepening rift in the Islamic Republic’s leadership over Syria’s fate and, more specifically, that of President Bashar al-Assad.

The image presented in the West about Iran’s intervention in Syria and its support for Assad’s government is that, despite many fissures over domestic issues, the Iranian leadership is completely unified when it comes to Iran’s strategic interests in the region, in particular Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. This is in fact far from reality. Similar to almost all other issues, there has always been a rift between the moderates and reformists on the one hand, and the hard-liners on the other.

Although there had been widespread speculations, both in Iran and in the Arab newspapers, about the possibility of Zarif removing Amir-Abdollahian from his post, his firing still provoked angry reaction by the hard-line websites and mass media, shedding further light on the rift in the Iranian leadership. Calling him a “revolutionary diplomat,” Mashregh, a website controlled by the IRGC, declared that Amir-Abdollahian was the embodiment of “Islamic Revolution diplomacy.” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the hard-line head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, expressed his displeasure over the firing. The branches of the Basij militia in six universities in Tehran, the paramilitary group controlled by the IRGC, issued a statement accusing Zarif of yielding to pressure by the Arab countries and the United States for firing Amir-Abdollahian. Zarif rejected the accusation and the link.

The statement by General Soleimani on Bahrain, a country outside his “sphere of influence” in the Middle East, must at least be seen partly as a reaction of the IRGC to firing of Amir-Abdollahian. An Iraq expert, he is close to the IRGC and the Quds force, and was deputy to Iran’s ambassador to that country from 1997–2001, deputy to Iran’s special envoy for Iraqi affairs from 2003–05 at the height that country’s invasion by the United States, as well as director of a special Iraq department at Iran’s foreign ministry from 2005–07 and special assistant to the foreign minister for Iraqi affairs from 2003–06. During that period, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq was Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, an IRGC and Quds Force officer with whom Amir-Abdollahian worked closely. His close connection with the hard-liners is manifested by the fact that, while during the Rouhani administration’s time in office Zarif and his chief deputy Abbas Araghchi have been criticized savagely by the hard-liners, they never criticized Amir-Abdollahian even once.