In the days after the joint Syrian Army–Lebanese Hezbollah victory over the rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr, the Assad regime has been positively giddy, announcing plans for a major offensive to retake the northern city of Aleppo. Assad’s key backer, Iran, has also been gloating. A victory speech of sorts, reported by hardline outlet Fars News and translated by the American Enterprise Institute’s Iran Tracker, offers a broad insight into how one of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest advisers sees the Islamic Republic’s standing in the region, and how the Syrian conflict figures in Iranian strategy. It’s a vision that sharply conflicts with how we’d expect Tehran to see itself—and accordingly, one that should be closely examined as the United States attempts to compel Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program.
The speaker, general Yahya Rahim-Safavi, is Khamenei’s top military aide, a role that he took up after a decade heading the politically powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He’s an influential player—notably, he backed the infamous head of the IRGC’s covert Quds Force, general Qassim Suleimani, whom the New York Times branded “Iran’s Master of Chaos.” And if his position and background didn’t already give it away, Rahim-Safavi is known as a resolute hardliner.
In Rahim-Safavi’s eyes, Iran’s strategic position is strong and getting stronger, and two men are responsible—Ali Khamenei and George W. Bush.
In 2003, the Americans pursued a war in Iraq to bring to power a secular government hostile to Iran. With the alert [Iraqi] clergy, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the jihadi Iraqi people, and the Iraqi intellectuals and revolutionaries they were unable to [do this]. [Instead] a good constitution and parliament, and a good, popular, Muslim government was established in Iraq that has good relations with Iran.... By God’s grace now two great enemies of Iran, the Taliban and Saddam, have been removed, and the effects of victory in Syria are apparent.
Of course, this is a tendentious reading of the Iraq conflict. Sistani, for example, has never been a figure of antigovernment or anti-American resistance, and is more a rival to Iranian influence and Iranian ideology than a friend of it. The “jihadi Iraqi people,” meanwhile, were more concerned with thwarting rival sects than with setting Iraq’s foreign policy. Yet the general is spot-on in his assessment that the United States inadvertently knocked down the barricades on Iran’s eastern and western frontiers. Tehran has influence in places it didn’t before, and its neighbors are less of a threat, allowing it to dream bigger.
Syria, for Rahim-Safavi, is the next phase of Iran’s advance. The conflict he sees is layered,
a confrontation between the strategic policies of the world’s great powers and regional powers. For the world powers, the US is on one side and Russia and China are on the other. Iran is a regional power placed against the money and mercenaries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
He also lumps in Turkey and Israel—pardon, the “Zionist regime”—with the Saudi-Qatari-American side. The goal, he suggests, is to create a “substitute Islamic Awakening in Syria”—in other words, to create a rival model to the Arab Spring, presumably in order to prevent its spread to U.S. allies. In Iranian eyes, the Arab Spring/”Islamic Awakening” represents a popular rejection of secular, nondemocratic, not-virulently-anti-American governments in favor of a model more like the Islamic Republic’s; accordingly, America, Israel, and its allies are determined to resist by any means necessary. In Syria, says Rahim-Safavi, this has even included “40,000 mercenary forces” and “violence by Al Qaeda terrorists.” Yet, he says, such an extraordinary and well-resourced conspiracy hasn’t been able to stand up to Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, and is producing blowback:
America’s and the Zionist regime’s policies and the billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and Qatar have failed in Syria, and now the Turkish government is facing protests in almost all of the country’s provinces. This shows that Turkey's policies toward its neighbor have been a mistake.
Again, a prejudicial reading—Turkey’s protests are only tangentially related to the Syrian conflict, the United States has confined itself to cheering the rebels on from the sidelines, and Israel isn’t even sure who it wants to win. But Syria is most definitely a proxy war over Iran’s role in the region, and Rahim-Safavi smells victory in the pyres of Qusayr.
The general is clear on who he thinks can claim credit:
The Supreme Leader’s strategic policies related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are the reason that Iran has become a regional power in Western Asia.
And he takes the geopolitical rhetoric one alarming step further:
Heretofore Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times; one time during the era of Cyrus along with the liberation of Jerusalem, another time was during the era of Xerxes and the crossing of the Bosporus Strait and the Greek campaign. The third time is in the present period, during which the power of Lebanese Hezbollah, the long arm of Iranian defensive power, is placed at the head of the Zionist regime and has been formed as the strategic defensive power of Iran.
Rahim-Safavi thus puts ersatz ayatollah Ali Khamenei among the greatest conquerors in five millennia of Persian civilization. It’s a shocking claim, one that demands balancing. Under Khamenei, Iran has been utterly alienated from the major powers of the West and kept at arms length, at their behest, by the major powers of the East. It is loathed by many of its neighbors and gains influence only when they are weakened. Its allies are odious—Bashar al-Assad may even be using the chemical weapons Iran purports to detest. Its economy has been seriously damaged, and a regime founded on claims of revolutionary justice and fairness has fallen into the hands of smugglers and back-room power brokers.
Yet Rahim-Safavi’s narrative still has power. For all its failings, Iran has made itself a regional force, and has done so against heavy resistance. Its proxies in Lebanon and Syria mean that no major shifts can occur in either without Khamenei’s acquiescence. It can play spoiler in Palestine and Iraq, and maybe Bahrain, too. Its nuclear advances eventually could render it much less vulnerable to external regime-change efforts. The world has tried to ignore Iran. Iran is trying to force the world to pay attention.