“What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?” President Trump asked Russia and Iran Friday night after launching air strikes against the Syrian regime. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep.”
Despite his speechwriters’ best efforts, if there is one thing Donald Trump and Iran share it is an inability to be shamed. Over the last seven years no country has done more, financially and militarily, to back the Bashar al-Assad regime’s mass murder of Syrians than the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocracy that claims to rule from a moral high ground. Within hours of joint American, French, and British targeted military strikes in Syria, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani calledAssad to pledge his solidarity.
At a time of great economic hardship in Iran, Tehran has provided billions of dollars to arm, train, and pay tens of thousands of Arab, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia militants help Assad crush Sunni Islamist rebels. Tehran, the victim of heinous chemical weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein three decades ago, has provided Assad the means to deliver these same weapons, while simultaneously denying that he uses them. The question is why?
Distilled to its essence, Tehran’s steadfast support for Assad is not driven by the geopolitical or financial interests of the Iranian nation, nor the religious convictions of the Islamic Republic, but by a visceral and seemingly inextinguishable hatred for the state of Israel. As senior Iranian officials like Ali Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have commonly said, “The chain of Resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway. … Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel.” So long as the 78-year-old Khamenei remains in power, this hatred will justify Tehran’s continued commitment of blood and treasure to support Assad’s use of all means necessary—including chemical weapons—to preserve his rule.
Though Israel has virtually no direct impact on the daily lives of Iranians, opposition to the Jewish state has been the most enduring pillar of Iranian revolutionary ideology. Whether Khamenei is giving a speech about agriculture or education, he invariably returns to the evils of Zionism. “The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off,” Khamenei said in a 2012 speech. “We will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world.” Given Israel’s military superiority, Khamenei’s stated strategy is not Israel’s short-term annihilation, but its long-term political dissolution. “If Muslims and Palestinians unite and all fight,” he commonly says, “the Zionist regime will not be in existence in 25 years.”
In ostensibly trying to avenge what he portrays as one injustice, however, Tehran has helped Assad perpetrate a far greater one. The number of Syrian deaths since 2011 (an estimated 500,000, though the UN has stopped counting) is more than five times greater than the approximately 90,000 Palestinians killed in the last 70 years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while more than twice as many Syrians (12 million) as Palestinians have been displaced. Indeed since 2011 far more Palestinians have been killed by Assad (nearly 3,700) than by Israel, including by chemical weapons. “If their way to return Palestinians back home is displacing millions of Syrians,” said my friend Kassem Eid, one of around half a million Palestinian refugees who grew up in Syria, and a victim of one of Assad’s chemical weapons attack, “I don’t want to go back to Palestine.”
The Iran-Assad alliance is a study in contradictions. While Iranian advocates for secularism are viciously repressed, Assad routinely says, “The most important thing is that Syria should be secular.” Iranian women who defy the mandatory hijab are subject to violence and imprisonment, while Hezbollah fighters celebrate military victories in Damascus nightclubs alongside scantily-cladescorts. While nude Renaissance art is censored in Europe so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of visiting Iranian officials, Assad’s forces have deliberately used rape as a tool of repression against opponents. Khamenei implores his subjects to buy Iranian products to boost economic self-sufficiency, while Tehran’s largesse has helped subsidize Assad’s wife Asmaa—an unveiled fashionista—sustain what looks like her primary passion: shopping in London.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad and Iran assiduously sought to crush moderate opposition and indulge radical Islamists in order to engineer a no-win proposition for the West: Assad or jihadists. Yet Tehran has tried to portray its role in Syria as an existential battle for Iran, against the forces of Sunni radicalism. “Syria is Iran’s 35th province,” said Mehdi Taeb, a head of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence wing and a close advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.” While Assad’s collapse would undoubtedly be a strategic blow to the Islamic Republic, Iran has been a nation-state for virtually 2,500 years before now without the benefit of a Syrian vassal state. Just as Russia outlived the USSR, so will Iran outlive the Islamic Republic.