Former Iranian President Slams Syria for Gassing own People: Sign of deep Divisions in Tehran

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has roiled Iranian politics by admitting that the Syrian government gassed its own people at Ghuta in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. He was lamenting the calamities that are befalling the hapless Syrian people. He attacked the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for filling what he called “football stadiums” full of political prisoners, as well as for using gas on the rebels.

This sign of division in the Iranian elite would ideally be used by Washington to put diplomatic pressure on that country. However, the American fixation with gunboat diplomacy will probably forestall that diplomatic approach.

Bloghnews carried the original phone video.

This site translates the key remarks this way: “The Syrian people have suffered much during the past two years. More than 100,000 were killed and seven to eight million have become displaced. Prisons are overflowing with people and they have turned stadiums into prisons. On the one hand the people have suffered a chemical attack by their own government. On the other, they have to await for US bombs today.”

The audio is also at Youtube

The Iranian press has scrubbed the original article on the former president’s speech.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran are sensitive to poison gas use, since the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq deployed mustard gas against Iranian troops during the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988. Many Iranian veterans still suffer from burning lungs and other bad health effects of exposure. It is a sore issue with the older leadership of the army and the Revolutionary Guards.

Even a representative of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, such as the Iranian representative at the UN, Mohammad Khazaei , felt it necessary to condemn the use of poison gas in Syria. Some Iranian spokesmen have taken up the same line as Russia, that the rebels gassed themselves, though this conclusion is absurd on the face of it and contradicted by French, British, US and Israeli intelligence, including telephone intercepts that make it clear that the Syrian military deployed the gas. Khazaei was non-committal in his statement, saying that the UN inspectors should be allowed to do their job. However, the UN inspectors are not charged with identifying the perpetrator, only with determining if poison gas was used and if so, what kind.

President Hassan Rouhani has been unusually quiet about the Syrian issue, despite US threats to bomb Syria over the gas use.

The Iranian elite seems starkly divided. The Supreme Leader is backing the Syrian regime to the hilt. But the reform faction, as exemplified by Rafsanjani, despises the Baathist dictatorship and is disgusted by the regime’s use of toxic gas on its own people. It may have been only an accident that Rafsanjani’s remarks were recorded on a cell phone and became known. He has embarrassed Khamenei and had to retract his statement.

It is also not impossible that Rafsanjani was deliberately embarrassing Khamenei, in a minor sort of way (he was speaking at a small town in the northern province of Mazandaran). Rafsanjani supported the Green Movement of 2009, which demanded more personal liberties from Khamenei and disputed the official story that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had easily won a second term. He was slapped down by Khamenei and his fanatical devotees, and the Green Movement was repressed. Rafsanjani could just be taking revenge on Khamenei by condemning Iran’s policy of supporting al-Assad no matter what. The implication of what Rafsanjani said, after all, is that Khamenei is supporting a dictator guilty of crimes against humanity. Although Westerners demonize the Islamic Republic, its supporters tend to see it as a repository of humane values, so that support for the Baath government of Syria sits uneasily on them.

Whatever the case, it seems to me that Rajsanjani’s admission points to severe polarization within the Iranian elite over continued support for al-Assad.

Syria is a land bridge whereby Iran resupplies the Lebanese Shiite party-militia, Hizbullah. If Iran lost Syria, its ability to intervene in Palestine would be severely set back.

34 Responses

  1. “… contradicted by French, British, US and Israeli intelligence …”

    Dr. Cole,
    the case depends entirely on Israeli intelligence.
    France, Britain and the US get their intel in the region from Israel.

    The phony “intercepted phone call” was produced by Israeli Intelligence.

  2. During the Iran-Iraq War, the United Nation Security Council acknowledged Iraqi deployment of chemical weapons against Iran.

    The U.S. intelligence community was not only aware of Iraq’s poison gas use but were furnishing satellite imagery to the Iraqi government to assist its military in revealing Iranian troop concentrations.

    There are some estimiates of Iranian casualty figures in that conflict that exceed American casualties in WWII. There is no doubt that the period from 1980-88 devastated both countries. The use of poison gas against not only Iranians – but also Kurdish civilians at Halabja in March of 1988 – was met with inaction and indifference by the U.S. State Department.

    Iran’s remembrance of victims of chemical weapons attacks is not surprising given the horrors of the 1980s.

  3. Professor, I don’t understand how Rajsanjani can admit to anything. He is not Syrian, isn’t in Syria and probably doesn’t know anything more about the affair than any other commentator?

  4. This is a remarkable statement by Hashemi-Rafsanjani whatever his motives. President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zareef have also condemned the use of chemical weapons, although they have not apportioned blame. Personally, I have my doubts about who used the crude weapons, despite the orchestrated “intelligence” findings, originating from Israel and repeated by Britain, France and the United States. We had the same confident statements about WMD prior to the Iraq war. At least we have to wait for the report by the UN team.

    It seems that those who were pushing for regime change in Syria are going to get their way. In a long, chilling interview with Justin Web on BBC Four’s “Today Program” this morning, General Jack Keane said that he had talked to Senators McCain and Graham after they had been briefed by President Obama. They were confident that the president planned not only to deter the further use of chemical weapons, but to degrade President Assad’s forces by attacking all his command and control centers and military installations leading to a regime change.

    By the way the full translation of the video clip of Rafsanjani’s speech that you have posted is as follows:

    “Our present problems are real problems. We are under embargo. We are under sanctions. We are under boycotts. We cannot make use of our resources. We cannot sell our oil, and even if we can sell it we will not be able to return its money [to the country]. If we buy some goods we have to buy them at inflated prices and have to pay extra expenses for transferring them, and many other problems. Recently, we are witnessing an even bigger threat. You certainly can see, you watch the news. At the moment, America and the West as a whole and a number of Arab countries have practically declared war on Syria, and at any moments ears [people] are waiting to hear the roar of missiles and bombs. May God have pity on the Syrian people! During the past two years, the Syrian people have been living under very bad conditions. They have suffered more than 100,000 killed and seven to eight million have become displaced, at home and abroad. The prisons are full of people. There is no room left in the prisons, so they used sports stadiums [as prisons] and have filled them. People are under very bad circumstances. On the one hand, the people come under chemical bombings by their own side, by their own government, and on the other hand they have to wait for American bombs.”

    • We had the same confident statements about WMD prior to the Iraq war.

      Claims that kept falling apart almost as soon as they were made.

      I can’t help but notice that none of the people assuring me that Kerry must by lying because Bush was lying have been able to come up with anything comparable to the “yellowcake” claim, the “aluminum tubes” claim, or the “Breaking Bad campers o’ death” claim. Heck, they haven’t even been able to point to any absurdities like “Saddam is going to give WMDs to al Qaeda.” Instead, the sides seem to have switched, with the hawks hewing vigorously to the facts, and the doves pushing outlandish conspiracy theories.

      • “I can’t help but notice that none of the people assuring me that Kerry must by lying …”

        There is a great deal of understandable skepticism about what is coming out of Kerry’s mouth, but most skeptics seem to have refrained from calling him a liar because they are like Kerry in not having solid evidence one way or the other. Anything less than conclusive evidence beyond a reasonable doubt should be unacceptable when so much is at stake.

        After Kerry’s failed presidential bid when it should have been a cakewalk for Anybody-but-Bush, there are few reasons for anyone with a memory extending longer than a couple of months trusting Kerry on any issue. He was capable of getting it disastrously wrong on Iraq and could be just as wrong on Syria. There are reports related to Kerry getting advice from Bob Shrum that suggest Kerry’s vote for war on Iraq was based on what was perceived to be his then-immediate political interest and nothing to do with what was right or wrong.

        • Understandable skepticism is a feeling – and an admirable one. But we didn’t just have feelings that the Bush administration was lying. We also didn’t merely have rules we just made up on the internet to disqualify evidence. We caught them in lie after lie, and we didn’t have to fall back on our feelings.

          As for Kerry’s “cakewalk,” no incumbent wartime President has ever lost an election in American history. Something that has never happened before is not a cakewalk. The challenger who came closest to unseating an incumbent wartime President was…John Kerry.

    • Google “BBC Four Today Program Gen. Jack Keane” to hear the whole “chilling” and scary interview.

      Yesterday, on PBS News, Keane laid out what we could do to Syria’s military infrastructure, but he didn’t say Obama intended to do it.

  5. Don’t you wish our politicians for once would say something to the effect of:

    “On the one hand the people have suffered a chemical attack by their own government. On the other, they have to await for US bombs today.”

    And if you think about this statement, he is equating the American government approach to that of Assad Regime.

  6. JC: “the rebels gassed themselves, though this conclusion is absurd on the face of it and contradicted by French, British, US and Israeli intelligence, including telephone intercepts that make it clear that the Syrian military deployed the gas”

    Why would a false-flag operation by foreign jihadists against Syrian civilians be “absurd”?

    After all, if you are a foreign jihadist then those aren’t your civilians, so why would you care how you killed ’em.

    And in what way, exactly, has French, UK, US or Israeli intelligence assessments “contradicted” that argument other than to various ways to say “trust us, we know he did it”?

    Why are those assessments any the less absurd, when it is demonstrably true that recent history has proven that “you can trust us” is absurd when applied to those intelligence services?

    And, so sorry, in what way is guilt “clear” from a telephone intercept wherein
    (a) a (supposed) Syrian Ministry of Defence official (supposedly) demands an explanation about What Just Happened?
    (b) the reply that is given is nowhere recorded or otherwise noted?

    Half a conversation isn’t “a conversation”, it is “a monologue”.

    You’re smart enough to know that, so why keep pretending otherwise?

  7. Anybody remember the lessons of “The Selling of the President?”

    How Washington REALLY works, for those who think “the world’s greatest deliberative body” will be taking on any real “constitutional” function in this “debate:”

    “Arm twisting in Washington before Syria Strike Vote”

    link to

    No personal consequences, of course, for the folks selling or buying in that incestuous marketplace. If kicking the hornet’s nest produces lots of angry hornets, well hey, other people will pay, and the tax dollars will keep rolling in, and out…

    Tapeworms and tumor cells just can’t help themselves, they just gotta do what they gotta do…

  8. “…contradicted by French, British, US and Israeli intelligence,”

    Why should the claims of these governments be taken at face value? Half the time Obama does not even try to claim he wants to help the Syrians; he talks about helping Israel or protecting the Americans from a chemical attack. Does the U.S. want to end the Syrian civil war, or prolong it, as they did the war between Iran and Iraq in the 80s? Maybe Obama could care less about Syria and just sees an opportunity to undermine Iran, Hezbullah, and the Arab spring.

  9. “Some Iranian spokesmen have taken up the same line as Russia, that the rebels gassed themselves, though this conclusion is absurd on the face of it …”

    I just read this in the Asia Times (link to

    The most startling counterpunch to the White House spin remains the Mint Press News report by AP correspondent Dale Gavlak on the spot, in Ghouta, Damascus, with anti-Assad residents stressing that “certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the gas attack”.

    • To be fair, Dale Gavlak isn’t “on the spot”.

      He is repeating the reports that are being sent to him by his stringer, Yahya Ababneh, who is in Ghouta.

      There is nothing unusual or even sinister about that, but you should at least note the correct sequence of events i.e. Yahya Ababneh is in Ghouta, and he is collecting evidence that he relays to Dale Gavlak in Jordan(?) or Lebanon(?).

  10. If Israel made peace with the Palestinians then some motivation for Iran to use Syria as a land bridge would vanish.

  11. Posts like this are why I come here. Excellent, insightful coverage that digs down into the internal politics of MENA countries. Iranian politics are still mainly discussed in the US as if the country was a strongman dictatorship.

    I’ve been wondering whether the Iranians’ experience with chemical warfare would come into play. Would it be safe to say that there is a generational split?

  12. Rafsanjani could not care less about the Western “evidence” against Assad aka intelligence collected by the Anti-Assad rebels. He just hates the current Iranian leaders and wants Assad to be hit simply because Hamenei supports him.

    Everything like here in the US where the GOP and Obama fight with each other by any means necessary.

  13. Dear Professor Cole

    One of your biggest triumphs during the Iraq fighting was to stop an American Tank Battalion firing on the Mosque in Najaf.

    Perhaps I might suggest you publish as short list of sites of major cultural and religious significance in Syria so the US pilots avoid sacrilidge as well as all the other charges that will be levelled against them.

    Clearly the Ummayad Mosque and the tomb of Salahedin will be avoided.

    The Shrine of Saida Ruqayya is just around the corner and the extraordinarily beautiful shrine of Saida Zainab is in the suburbs near the road to the airport.

    The loss of any of these would be a loss to mankind and would confirm to the world that the Americans have inherited the legacy of Hugalu.

    • Eurofrank is right. Dr. Cole was one of the first to apply the accepted definition of civil war to Iraq, years ahead of US media. Given the stupidity of US actions, Iraq could be argued to have been on a course to civil war six weeks, two months, six months, or a year after the US invasion. Each passing year made it clearer that US media and military exclusive, interchangeable and erroneous application of the terms ‘rebel’, ‘dead-enders’, and ‘Al Qaeda’ to any Iraqi bearing a weapon was out of kilter with reality, far past the time when any rational person could see the country had dissolved and Iraqis were just trying to stay alive. But despite all the blood and bombings, the clearest signpost that cemented violent contention as Iraq’s future far past the forseeable future was the bombing of the Golden Mosque. By comparison Bush’s Surge was hilariously inconsequential. But the Golden Mosque was largely ignored by US media and military, papered over by a continuing line of new PR rollouts and attendant media fawning over those mythical ‘pivotal’ events and hammer blows that once turned or pounded would usher in peace and plenty and a benificent sun shinging on all Iraq. The infrastructural damage to his own people by Assad clinging to power may have by now already sent Syria over the edge into long term unrecoverability a la Iraq. But destruction of a site of cultural importance now would bring a guarantee.

      Iraq was a good example of the question: Is any national leader more important than the advent of a dissolved nation with no law, no justice, no stability, no economy, no borders, no employment, no rest, no help, no hope, and a steady supply of weapons? Gee whiz, sounds like Gaza. Assad’s unwillingness to cede power or negotiate, his steady destruction of Syria’s infrastructure, and his bloody attacks on entire sections of his own population pose the question of why Russia and China would prefer the establishment of a highly contagious national disease source–a Typhoid Mary to nations–to the departure of a leader whose ultimate fall by now is sealed even if he ‘wins’.

      This isn’t about Syria as much as Iran, and not about Iran as much as Israel. Iraq was far enough away that Israel didn’t have to feel the effects of an Iraq made porous and dangerous by US stupidity. Syria is a different story. Destabilization of Syria by the elegantly inexpensive action of inaction by Russia and China applies pressure on the US toward actions it would rather not take but is politically compelled to to protect Israel. Obama has allowed himself to be surrounded by red lines. He has had time to recognize them and form positions where the tangle of red lines might be lessened, but he hasn’t. About the only appendage he has free is his right foot, and people like Graham and McCain, and the US military keep pushing the red button in under his toes and telling him to relax into his presidential power.

  14. This is a reoccurring theme in American foreign policy in the Middle East: why be smart when you have lots of guns. Subtle diplomacy seems quite beyond us. The question always seems to be; do we bomb them or not?

    Here is an opportunity to be on the right side of an issue and get help from others but arrogance will preclude such a thing. Iran is a “must not talk to” country.

  15. Today’s war rhetoric exists in a bubble that the common person cannot rationalize. All these governments are INCAPABLE of preserving humanity.

    We get it, gassing people to death is horrible. But we should remain un-hypnotized by the call-to-arms. Bleeding to death from severed limbs (and all the other ways) is also an inhumane way to kill children.

    Yet each government is proposing more of the same.

    Ninety-nine per cent of people want nothing to do with dying or killing, and are completely dumbfounded at being held hostage by the various governments’ leaders.

    The leader(s) of my country (AND all others) are incapable of building the future we require, and all are equally guilty at this point of destroying human society.

  16. I thought that he intercepted call was a senior Syrian Army official berating the local Army commander for the chemical attack as being apparently contrary to Syrian government policy. Am I wrong? The actual intercept contents seem to have disappeared from the debate.

  17. Editing and selection in foreign policy decision making is paramount.
    It might be useful to be reminded that while this is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it is also the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missle Crisis. What was both remarkable at a critical juncture during the crisis, and a valuable opportunity and resource to turn off the then imminent threat of nuclear war, was Nikita Krushchev’s sending two – contradictory – messages to Kennedy: one threatening war, the other calling for restraint and peace. While JC may correctly point to the internal divisions within the current Iranian power structure, more to the point is that what we may be seeing -in the divergent recent statements by Rouhani, coupled with Rafsanjani’s critique of Syria and the use of chemical weapons, and Ali Khamenei’s UN representative (Khazaei) – is a potential opportunity to select which of the divergent messages to respond to. Obama’s failure has been his narrowly tactical vision of what diplpmacy is and entails. If he were to reach out to Iran – as did Krushchev – and embrace diplomacy over war threats and military strikes, he could strengthen the hand of Iranian “moderates”; he could undercut the hawks in the US and elsewhere bent on attack and imperial dominance. The recent British undercutting of a ready bought-and-paid-for US attack coalition, and a political delay by Obama to entangle the Congress in his project, may be just the opportunity for Obama to forge a different, potentially more robust and peaceful path that that advanced by his advisors and the military. He just might create a game changer scenario that would recast the global political terrain, enable efforts for peace and reconsiliation, provide room for maneuver domestically, and justify his too early awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

  18. Obama and company apparently plan to just lob a few missiles into Syria to send a message. That will be tragic for the Syrians on the receiving end. But it could be worse if Washington decided to “bring democracy” to Syria. Iraq and Libya were intended beneficiaries of that program, and now they are basket cases.

  19. “Obama and company apparently plan to just lob a few missiles into Syria to send a message”

    And the massage is for Iran,though bombing Syrian to send massage to Iran is absurd, it is what it is.

  20. Regardless of the Iran-Syria historic relationship in an otherwise hostile Sunni Arab region, Iran probably realizes they are on the wrong by backing Bashar Al Assad.

    But their fear of the Salafi/Wahabi/Sunni jihadist led opposition has made them awfully desperate in keeping those links alive. The fear of the opposition is understandable, which Iraqis and Lebanese share too, but opposing the rebels shouldn’t mean siding or backing a brutal sick regime.

    Iran’s priority in having access to the Shia South Lebanese population and vice versa for each other’s support, is one thing, but Iran has got to let go of this Israel-Palestinian fixation go.

    However, the way the US is approaching this with a strike, considering their questionable past actions and narrowed views, is not helping.

  21. The senate hearing on a proposed illegal war against Syria gave Secretary Kerry and others sharing his position an opportunity to engage in Orwellian-speak.

    According to the secretary, this proposed attack on Syria is not an act of war. There are American Navy destroyers and cruisers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. They are warships. They have missiles on board primed for an attack on Syria. Those missiles are weapons of war. If firing weapons of war from warships to cause severe destruction in another country is not an act of war, then what is?

    On CNN Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) invoked the moral imperative to justify an attack on Syria. Where was the moral imperative in Congress when all but very few of its incumbent senators and representatives endorsed the mass slaughter of Palestinians by Israeli Defense (sic) Forces in Operation Cast Lead in Dec. 2008/January 2009?

  22. “If firing weapons of war from warships to cause severe destruction in another country is not an act of war, then what is?”

    Anyone? Joe? Bill? Any choices for music to go with the tap-dance around this one?

  23. Whether Iran accepts the fact that Assad is the one who used the chemical weapons or not, the most troubling part is that the Assad regime has been killing innocent Syrains for more than 2 years now, in the most barbaric ways… and you have very little condemnation from Iran’s leaders. In 2 years, Assad has killed more people than the total number of Palestinians killed in a 100 years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet the Iranian leadership continue to provide support to the brutal Syrian dictator. This kind of hypocrisy is what makes it shameful.

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