BEIRUT: The use of chemical weapons in Syria has touched on sensitive memories in Iran of the decade-long war with Iraq but is unlikely to alter Tehran’s foreign policy on Syria, Iranian analysts say.
Iran’s foreign policy position, siding with its ally Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war, has been largely off the radar for the average Iranian. Even in the recent presidential election which saw moderate Hassan Rouhani defeat hard-line opponents for the presidency, campaign issues centered around economic management, rather than foreign policy issues.
But the alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus on Aug. 21 threw the civil war next door into the popular domain this week, after reported comments, later denied, from reformist ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, that accused the Syrian government of being behind the poison gas attack in Syria that killed hundreds.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Monday denied the report, carried by the Iranian Labor News Agency, quoting Rafsanjani as saying Syrian authorities had fired chemical weapons at their own people. ILNA replaced the report with one that did not attribute blame for the attack and the Foreign Ministry said the comments were “distorted.”
Rafsanjani is a close ally of Rouhani and chairs Iran’s Expediency Council, which advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The report followed a claim on Facebook by the granddaughter of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who said Rafsanjani condemned the use of chemical weapons by “a government,” and reminded those at a meeting of governors in Ishfahan of the fate of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Since reports emerged of the Aug. 21 attack in Damascus, Iranian officials have either condemned the use of chemical weapons in broad terms, or blamed Al-Qaeda-linked rebels for the attack.
There have also been stern warnings from Iranian officials against plans for a U.S. strike on Syria as punishment for the chemical attack, which America and its allies blame squarely on the Syrian regime.
Iranian soldiers suffered poison gas attacks during the country’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, and thousands of Iranian victims of Saddam’s gas attacks are still alive today. Saddam’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people, and injured up to 10,000 more.
“Chemical weapons are an issue that resonates in Iran,” said Mehran Kamrav, director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar.
“There are still veterans of the chemical weapons attacks and it’s an issue that many people relate to,” he said.
But Kamrav said it was unlikely to alter the Iranian position vis-à-vis the Syrian government, given the burden of proof lies with the Americans.
“The government would have an extremely difficult time standing by Bashar Assad if it could be proven that he is responsible,” he said.
“But it would be too much of a leap of faith to say that the Iranians would abandon their ally over this one issue.
“They have vocally condemned the use of chemical weapons but they don’t want to do what the Americans did, which was turn a blind eye when the Iraqis used them.
While Syria does inform “politically aware” voters in Iran, he said for most “it is not on their radar.”
Associate professor in English literature and Orientalism at Tehran University Seyyed Mohammad Marandi said anger over American complicity in the Iraqi attacks would serve to harden Iranian support for the Syrian regime.
Himself a chemical weapons survivor, Marandi said U.S. attempts to blame the Syrian regime amounted to “utter hypocrisy.”
“I think the current events directed a lot of anger toward the U.S. because they and their allies actually helped Saddam Hussein produce and use the chemicals,” he said from Tehran.
Pointing to declassified documents that highlighted American fabrication of intelligence in the Iraq war in 2003 about the existence of weapons of mass destruction which was used to justify an allied invasion of the country, he said the Americans had little credibility to lose in Iran.
U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking congressional approval for a strike on Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack on the basis of what Americans say is intelligence that proves the Syrian regime was responsible for a sarin gas attack in Damascus, ahead of a report by U.N. weapons inspectors who have collected samples from the site.
The U.S. said samples were collected too late by the U.N. investigating team to be useful.
The inspectors arrived in Syria a day ahead of the attack in Damascus, with Syrian government agreement, to investigate three other sites of competing claims by rebels and the Syrian government that chemical weapons were used.
Marandi said Iran was almost certain that the rebels were behind the Aug. 21 attack.
“They tried to prevent the inspectors from going in to investigate, and when they did try to investigate this crime, they discredited their findings.” Thirdly, he said, “we know from previous instances that the rebels used sarin.”
“People in Iran are highly suspicious of the U.S.,” he said.