Israel’s attacks on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria spur internal disputes in Iran
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall and Orly Ram
Iran’s response to Israel’s extensive attack on Iranian Revolutionary Guard targets in Syria on May 9, 2018, reflects growing confusion and dissent within its leadership and security service, and hints of the first possible cracks to appear between the Tehran regime and Syrian president Assad and Russia. Furthermore, it expresses and exacerbates the crisis surrounding Iran’s foreign and defense policies following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran.
Most of the state-run media in Iran have referred to the Israeli attack as a struggle between Syria and Israel and praised and credited the Syrian army for its success in dealing with Israeli missiles. They claim that the rocket attack against Israel was the result of “Israeli aggression” against Syria over recent weeks. The Fars news agency, which is associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), emphasized that senior Syrian officials have confirmed that the attack on the Zionist regime was carried out by Syria and no one else, while senior officials in the West and Israel were trying to present these events as an Iranian-Israeli issue.
Revolutionary Guard officers and the regular army have refused to respond directly to the Israeli attack, and they have threatened in general to react in a “firm manner” to any further Israeli attacks. Some members of the Majlis’ (Iranian Parliament) Commission for Foreign Affairs and Security stated that Iran has no bases in Syria, only advisors, and that Israel is lying and planned the attack after Trump gave his speech about withdrawing from the nuclear deal. Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s advisor on international affairs, said that the Zionist regime “lives in delusions regarding the protective abilities of Iron Dome, and it has shown (during the rocket attack on Israel) that the system is not airtight and can be breached.” Iran’s top proxy, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizbullah, said that the rockets fired toward the “Israeli-occupied Golan Heights” were only one small part of the “response” to Israeli strikes on Syria that will be carried out “in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi released his first statement on this issue only on Friday, May 11, 2018. In it, he denounced what he defined as “the Israeli attack on Syria,” stressing that Damascus “has the right to defend itself” and that Israel “fabricated” that the rockets fired at it were Iranian.
Criticism of Assad and Russia after the Attack
Against the backdrop of the refusal of senior Iranian officials to acknowledge Iran’s part in the incident, the reaction of Heshmatollah FalahatPisheh, member of the Majlis Commission for Foreign Affairs and Security, is particularly striking. In an interview with the Parliamentary news agency, he expressed some rare criticism of President Bashar Assad of Syria: “The fact that Bashar Assad survived and maintains his post is due to Iranian aid…. Assad owes his rule to Iran, which provided him with urgent assistance on the level of military consultation six years ago.”
FalahatPisheh stated that “in the last ‘challenge’ (attack on Revolutionary Guard targets by Israel), through which the Zionists attempted to involve Iran, we witnessed Assad’s passive stance. Bashar Assad’s passivity comes at a time when young Iranians have been sacrificing their lives for the past six years to preserve Syria’s sovereignty and help it return to its role within international relations.” According to FalahatPisheh, Bashar Assad’s passivity has become food for thought in the Islamic Republic. “National interests and security are very important to us, but we can’tignore the way our foreign policy is being conducted,” he continued.
This is not the first time that the president of Syria has been criticized for not compensating for Iranian blood spilled on Syrian soil for the sake of the reconstruction of Syria. Senior religious figure Ayatollah Ahmad Alam ul-Hoda, Friday prayer leader in Mashad, stated in a recent sermon that Iran is making sacrifices for Syria, but Iranian companies are unable to participate in Syria’s rehabilitation program.
On the other hand, Iran’s official news agency IRNA, under the headline “Where does Russia stand on the Zionist regime’s attack on Syria?” criticizes the position of the Russian administration on Israel’s recent attack. The article quotes European media and commentators claiming that the Israeli prime minister informed Russian President Vladimir Putin of the planned attack. It also stated that ties between Iran and Russia are a “marriage of convenience” as opposed to a strong strategic pact. Moscow has not felt very comfortable with its alliance with Tehran on the Syrian issue, and there have been tensions with Iran due to the Kremlin’s desire to maintain good relations with Israel. Apparently, IRNA’s seemingly laconic report is a way to criticize Moscow for its silence (all it did was “express concern” and call for a calming of tensions between Israel and Iran) and also, reading between the lines, for its cooperation with Israel while abandoning Tehran and its problems to the international arena.
In this regard, an Iranian website that supports the Iranian presence in Syria and relates to developments in the Islamic world in Iranian contexts, criticized the failed performance of both Iran and Russia in protecting Iranian military personnel sent to Syria. The article was published shortly after the attack attributed to Israel at the T- 4 airbase. The raid killed at least seven IRGC members, and the website noted that the number of Iranian fatalities was even higher than what was unofficially reported.
The website wondered why Revolutionary Guards outlets do not refer to the deaths of Iranian military officials in the recent attacks in Syria, and why Iranian military leaders cannot properly protect Iranian soldiers in Syria. The authors also criticized Russia for caring only about its soldiers at Syrian sites where Iranian soldiers were present. The website calls upon Iranian commanders to demand Russia to provide protection to Iranians in those sites and asks, “What kind of alliance is this between us and the Russians?” The article also criticizes President Hassan Rouhani’s government for its “passivity” in view of the continued killing of Iranian military personnel in Syria.
“We Will Destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa”
Ahmad Khatami, one of the five Friday prayer leaders in Tehran, a member of the Assembly of Experts, and an opponent of Iranian President Rouhani and his regime, stated in his sermon that, “Iran is not involved in a nuclear bomb, but it is getting stronger every day in the field of missiles so that it can stop Israel from sleeping…. If Israel goes crazy one day (and attacks Iran), we will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa…. Syria has been at war for seven years, but it stands courageously, with missiles against the reckless moves of the Zionist regime, and it will turn the Zionist cities into ghost towns. We wish to hold (Syria’s) hand, and we pray that it will win an eternal victory.”
Before his sermon, the preacher actively encouraged worshippers to shout out slogans such as, “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” “Death to England,” and “Death to al-Saud” (the Saudi royal family).
Hossein Dalirian, who heads the military desk at the Tasnim news agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, emphasized the importance of the attack on Israel and attributed it to the Syrian army, referring in a Tweet to “those who carried out the attack.” He added in another Tweet that “guided missiles may be used in upcoming attacks” and it was not important whether the rockets hit their target or not. What was important was showing the enemy Iran’s ability to identify Israeli military bases. Additionally, he tweeted that a number of important “targets” of “the Zionist enemy” were attacked by “Syria,” and that good intelligence work had been accomplished (though he did not say whose).
In contrast, the users of social media networks in Iran were convinced that the Revolutionary Guard (al-Quds force) was behind the launch of rockets into Israel as revenge for other recent attacks on Syrian forces, and primarily the attack on the T4 airbase in Syria on April 9, 2018. Some of them echoed the words of their leader that “Israel will be destroyed within 25 years,” while others posted pictures of Israelis in bomb shelters with the hashtags #Israelhasfallen #اسرائيل_سقطت and #RevengeoftheRevolutionary Guard. # انتقام_سپاه
Internet social networks (not for the first time) removed the account identified with the commander of the al-Quds forces of the Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani, after the account posted a caricature of Soleimani attacking Prime Minister Netanyahu with an Iranian flag.
The Iranian People Are Held Captive by the Revolutionary Guard
The reactions of the citizens of Iran to these events are divided. Many citizens, in conversations with the Farsi-language service of media such as the BBC, Radio Frada, the Voice of America, and other channels broadcast from the West, which are watched and heard by millions, have said that they have been held captive by the Revolutionary Guard for the past 40 years, and they are pleased that Israel has attacked the IRGC in Syria. Some of the Iranian responses called upon Israel and the United States not to turn these episodes into hostility between the Iranian people and Israel and America. Some said that only an all-out war against Iran would lead to the removal of the Islamic regime, and others were concerned that such a war would lead to the total disintegration of the society, economy, and state of Iran.
Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a senior lecturer on international relations at the University of Tehran, a sworn critic of the conservative camp in Iran and a key activist in the reformist Iranian media, wrote on his Twitter account that, “If, Heaven forbid, a war breaks out between Iran and Israel in Syria, it won’t be possible to explain to future generations in Iran that Iran went to war against a country that is not its neighbor, is 2,000km away from it, never harmed Iran’s national interests, and had no claims against Iran. Why does Iran need to waste billions of dollars on military expenses and absorb a lot of fatalities in this war?”
In response, the conservative site and newspaper Javaonline, which is identified with the Revolutionary Guard, criticized Zibakalam. It wrote, “This lecturer forgets, among other things, that the Zionists assassinated Iran’s nuclear scientists…” The newspaper wrote that Zibakalam, despite claims by certain elements in Iran that he receives money to defend the Zionist regime, is a naïve, simple person who serves the enemy for free. The newspaper referred to the deaths of Iranian military personnel in Syria (apparently in the T4 attack), writing that Zibakalam is “defending Israel at a time when we have not yet reached the fortieth day (Arba’een) since the deaths of the martyred Iranian soldiers who came to Syria under agreements with the Damascus regime.” (In Shia Islam, 40 days after a person dies is marked and considered as an important commemoration date.)
In any case, among Iranian leadership and society, differences of opinion are surfacing over the national price that Iran is paying for its reckless policy of deploying the Revolutionary Guard in areas outside Iran (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen). The slogan, “Not Lebanon, not Gaza. We will sacrifice ourselves for Iran,” heard during unrests in 2009 following the elections, was still heard during demonstrations in December 2017. Today it resounds through the streets of Tehran and other cities and on social networks. The most recent attack against ICRG targets, the increasing numbers of deaths among Iranian forces based in Syria, casualties among Basij forces and the many volunteers working under the auspices of Iran in Syria to protect the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque (a Shiite holy site in the southern suburbs of Damascus), put this question back on the Iranian agenda.
Trump’s announcement of his withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the mention of Iran’s negative involvement in the region only strengthen the internal disputes within Iran regarding this issue and the growing price that it is paying, and it will continue to pay, when crippling sanctions are re-imposed for Iranian military involvement outside the country.
Until now, Iran has not paid any price for its belligerent involvement in various parts of the Middle East: in Yemen (aiding the Houthis by providing ballistic missiles to attack Saudi Arabia’s strategic oil infrastructure and attack ships in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait); the Palestinian arena (opposition to any peace process with Israel; support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in their resistance to peace, and supporting terror); Bahrain (encouraging the Shiite opposition); Morocco (supporting the Polisario opposition forces), and various other places.
The timing of the Revolutionary Guard’s reaction to the losses sustained in earlier attacks on Syria that were attributed to Israel – the day after Trump’s speech about leaving the nuclear deal – was problematic and played into the hands of the United States and Israel. Trump’s statements regarding Iran’s interventions outside its own borders were put on display. The attack was denounced by all of Iran’s main co-signatories on the nuclear deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), whom Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif visited days later in an attempt to persuade them to remain with the deal despite the U.S. departure from it.
Treat the Problem, Not the Symptoms
Since President Trump took office, and especially over the past few weeks, Iran has begun paying the price for its aggressive interventions in regional, international, and domestic affairs. This is only expected to intensify in the near future. Apparently, part of President Trump’s policy is to deal with the problem of the Iranian regime and the need to replace it, rather than the symptoms of the problem, such as nuclear policy, ballistic missiles, terror, exporting revolution, and flagrant abuses of human rights. In this context, Iran’s involvement in Yemen is also gaining increasing attention from the U.S. administration, which has been active in this country against al-Qaeda and ISIS. The United States is also intensifying its involvement in Saudi attempts to prevent ballistic missiles being fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia and to eliminate the leaders of the Houthi rebels.
The price that Iran will pay in the future can already be seen from the disputes inside Iran between the president, the Supreme Leader, and the Revolutionary Guard. It is also expressed through the internal discourse inside Iran about the effect of the Revolutionary Guard’s involvement in the everyday lives of citizens and the chance of getting out of the severe economic crisis that the Iranian people have been suffering for the past two and a half years after signing the nuclear deal, which has failed to bring any tangible gains.
Despite the growing cost of the reckless policies of the Revolutionary Guard outside Iran and the huge budgets allotted to them, it does not appear that Iran will give up on the Syrian arena, which is a bridge to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Syria and Lebanon, and to a certain extent the Gaza Strip are, from the Iranian national security point of view, the first line of defense from the “Zionist enemy.” Tehran has devoted billions of dollars to create this line. Iran will be compelled to toe the line and carefully tread between maintaining good relations with Western countries to drive a wedge between them and the United States so that the nuclear deal can be saved and what it considers to be its security interests in Syria and Lebanon. Every action that Iran takes from Syria toward Israel can complicate its relations with the European countries. In this regard, Moscow may play a central role and restrain Iran in Syria and its nuclear policy.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.