Iranian opposition grows vocal on ayatollahs’ Syria policy
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Iranian opposition grows vocal on ayatollahs’ Syria policy

A series of articles questions Iran’s support for Bashar Assad, but so far with little impact on policy, Israeli expert says

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaks with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, left, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015 (Syrian presidency Facebook page)
Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaks with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, left, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015 (Syrian presidency Facebook page)

Iranian oppositionists have stepped up their criticism of the ayatollah regime’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, claiming it has gravely harmed Iran’s standing in the Arab world.

Human rights activists and journalists, mostly living outside Iran, are increasingly penning articles critical of the unwavering Iranian military support for Assad.

According to Reuters, hundreds of Iranian troops arrived in Syria in late September to take part in a massive ground offensive, supported by the Russian army, to recapture territories lost to anti-government rebels.

In an article published on September 20 in Rooz Online, a news site located outside Iran, writer Reza Alijani argued that Iran’s regional influence has waned in recent years due to its intervention in Syria. He added that Iran’s manifestly Shiite foreign policy — coupled with its ruthless repression of domestic opposition — has harmed its image in the Arab world as protector of all Muslims. Even former allies, such as Hamas, have moved away from Iran as a result, he said.

An anti-Rouhani protester dons a papier-mâché head of the Iranian president during a demonstration outside the UN building in New York, September 28, 2015. (Rebecca Shimoni Soil)
An anti-Rouhani protester dons a papier-mâché head of the Iranian president during a demonstration outside the UN building in New York, September 28, 2015. (Rebecca Shimoni Soil)

Similar criticism appeared in an open letter sent by Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam to Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif in August. Zibakalam called on Zarif to change Iran’s policy of support for Assad, arguing that “hanging a revolutionary medal on Assad’s chest” cannot mask his essence as the leader of a minority group repressing the vast majority of his country’s citizens.

“Criticism of the regime on Syria has appeared in earlier stages of the uprising, but its intensity has increased,” Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University who published an article on the subject on the website of the Forum for Regional Thinking, told The Times of Israel.

“Until the beginning of the Russian attack, it seemed like the Assad regime was increasingly desperate, raising questions within Iran regarding the wisdom of supporting it,” Zimmt added. “The new-found interest in the Syrian issue resulting from the wave of refugees reaching Europe has also highlighted the plight of the Syrians.”

Those sentiments have also found expression on social media. In mid-September, a group of a few dozen social activists launched a Facebook page named “Sorry Syria,” which has so far garnered over 3,000 followers. In a message posted on the page, its founders — mostly expatriates — underscored their nonpartisan makeup, demanding that Iran desist from funneling money and military equipment to Assad, mainly via the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.

“We demand that the Islamic Republic stop its support of the Assad regime and respect the Syrian people’s basic human rights,” the group wrote in its campaign statement.

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Posted by ‎برای سوریه Sorry Syria‎ on Monday, 5 October 2015

Despite its higher visibility, Zimmt said that the new anti-regime trend has had little impact on reshaping Iran’s foreign policy.

“We hear no voices within circles close to the Iranian regime doubting the [Syria] policy,” he said. “If any doubts are being raised by confidants of [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani, they haven’t leaked out.”

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