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.
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 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.