Is there a movement against Iran's intervention in Syria?

Is there a movement against Iran's intervention in Syria?
Comment: Pride, nostalgia, anti-Arab and anti-Israeli hostility - mixed with revolutionary ambition - account for the scarcity of dissenting voices, writes Majid Mohammadi.
4 min read
13 Nov, 2015
Several Iranian commanders have been killed in Syria in recent months [AFP]

In the past couple of weeks, tens of Iranians have been killed in Syria and buried in Iran.

More than 45 Iranian soldiers have been killed, mainly near the city of Aleppo. A dozen of them were IRGC commanders and generals - including General Hosein Hamedani, Colonel Farshad Hasounizadeh, Brigadier Hamid Mokhtarband, and the commander of the Fatemiyyun brigade, Ibrahim Yaqubi.

Hundreds of Afghan refugees living in Iran and recruited by the Quds Force were also reportedly killed in Syria.

Other than logistics, financial support and electronic warfare, around 2,000 Iranian troops are thought to be fighting alongside Syrian government soldiers to prop up President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The Quds Force has also trained and recruited thousands of Iraqis for the war in Syria.

"We have four levels of military presence in Syria: leadership, tactical, technical and operational," said Hussein Salami, deputy commander in chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Nevertheless, nobody in Persian media or on the country's streets is protesting against the government's intervention policy. The number of exiled politicians and activists who have spoken against this intervention is fewer than the number of fingers of one hand.

Intellectual hypocrisy

In 2003 and 2011, right before the US invasions of Iraq and Libya, Iranian intellectuals issued several statements to condemn any foreign military intervention. Hundreds of Iranians - Islamists, nationalists and Marxists - signed these statements.

Their main argument promoted self-governance and sovereignty of nation states. But when the Islamic Republic began its own military intervention in Syria - and even when tens of Iranians have been killed abroad - there has been no similar statement.

This is true even for intellectuals who live abroad and do not have to pay any price for speaking out.

Four-year lie

The Islamic Republic of Iran denies any military intervention - and claims that all Iranians in Syria have a military consulting role only. But among the dead there are many regular Basijis and guards. The number of commanders and trainers among the dead is negligible.

The Islamic Republic never declared any changes to its forces in Syria. The number of troops sent to Syria has been confidential. Iranian soldiers in Syria are introduced as the "protectors of Shia mausoleums" - while there are no Shia sacred places in Halab or Deraa, where these forces have been fighting.

Considering this lie, are Iranian intellectuals inside and outside the country enthusiastic about the war or they prefer to keep their dissent silent?

     There is a very strong faction in Iranian politics which longs for Iran's hegemonic power in the region

Why silence?

Despite Iran being still under sanctions, millions of Tehran's dollars are spent in Syria. This is not something that the public could digest and accept. But Iranians are silent. There are four possible explanations:

First, there is a very strong faction in Iranian politics which longs for Iran's hegemonic power in the region.

The rulers of the Islamic Republic today believe that Iran was once a great nation, and can again be a world power. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad always talked about "global management" by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Some nationalists who are nostalgic for Iran's imperial past would think of recent interventions and the nation's increasing influence in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon as a way of taking back the lands lost in ancient wars.

One of Iran's first targets was Iraq, its regional rival in the 1970s and 1980s. After the US military decimated Iraq's military capability and Sunni leadership, Iran saw an opportunity to exert influence.

With Iran's help, Hizballah has now become the dominant faction in Lebanon. The Syrian civil war has been a disaster for the Syrian people but it has been an opportunity for the Islamic Republic to gain more influence in the country.

Second, Iranian state media present IS as Saudi Arabia's proxy, in order to foment anti-Arab sentiments. Some nationalists do not like the Islamic Republic - but hate Arabs, especially Saudis. For them, the war against IS is a war of convenience.  

Third, anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic feelings are very strong in some sections of Iranian Shia communities. Some of the regime's propaganda is focused on introducing IS fighters as the stooges of Israel.

The pro-regime section of the population usually welcomes any war upon one side of which is Israel, or its claimed proxies.  

And lastly, the revolutionary generation of 1979 who wanted to export its revolution sees a new opportunity in recent regional developments. In 1979, Iran could not extend its power to any of her neighbours.

Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Persian Gulf countries were more stable than Iran. But now, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon face multiple crises - and there are several power vacuums that Iran's clerics and guards want to fill. 

As a result, Islamists, nationalists and even Marxists are just watching the war and its casualties - and waiting for the public to react. Iran's intelligentsia has been leading from the rear for the past three decades. 

Majid Mohammadi is an Iranian-born academic and the author of several books in Persian and English on politics, arts and religion in Iran.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.