Great thoughts by Reza Marashi on the potential for a nuclear deal to rebalance America’s hub-and-spoke relations with Middle East powers. The deal could widen the array of potential partners in dealing with U.S. security concerns and hold allies to a higher standard of accountability. If successful, the deal would ensure that the US not become enmeshed with one side of the region’s geopolitical contest. Very unlikely, anyways, for the traditional Sunni allies to resolve, alone, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
Ariane Tabatabai, a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University, nuclear non-proliferation expert, and occasional contributor to LobeLog, is very busy these days. But she agreed to speak with us about the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. She explained how the Rouhani administration earned widespread support from Iran’s parliament for the framework agreement. Tabatabai also argued that the Supreme Leader of Iran, a key supporter of the talks, has moved to the centrist camp of Iranian politics during the course of these negotiations. He has, she points out, accepted the possibility of broader engagement with the West and may deliberately be avoiding the arch-conservative policies that led, in part, to popular unrest following the disputed presidential elections in 2009. Finally, she gave a sober-minded assessment of the impact that sanctions relief could bring to bear on Iran’s regional policies.
How has the Iranian political establishment responded to this deal?
Very generally, the response has been positive in Iran. Shortly after the agreement was announced, the IRGC came out with the strongest, most resonating support so far for the process. Fairly high up, you have commanders saying, “Look, this is very good; congratulations to the Supreme Leader and children of the revolution.”
Immediately following the announcement of the framework agreement, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Iranian state TV defending and selling the deal. It was a two-and-a-half hour long Q&A where he was questioned about all the details of the agreement, everything from the sanctions, to the heavy water reactor, to Fordow, to the number of centrifuges. That was their version of the U.S. fact sheet. Following that, he went to Iran’s parliament, the majles. There was a lot of pressure on him there, because Iran had not put out its own document. Ultimately what happened was Ali Larijani, speaker of the majles, came out and supported it as well. The pushback about Iran’s lack of a fact sheet, and the perception of a dissonance, got to the point where the Iranians were debating whether to release their own fact sheet, which was then prepared by Salehi and the rest of the team. It was given to Zarif to release or not. They debated on it for a few days till they finally decided not to release.
Why did Minister Zarif decide against releasing the fact sheet?
There is a realization in Iran that the U.S. fact sheet was very helpful for the U.S. side in the U.S. but it was not very useful for the Iranians. And there was then a realization that if they put out the fact sheet it would maybe be helpful for them at home but that it would not help the negotiations more generally. So the [government] is saying look, “we’re giving you the details and we don’t need to put in a fact sheet that would be then dissected in the U.S.”
Many in the U.S. have construed rhetoric from Iran’s Supreme Leader or other powerful conservatives as evidence of outstanding gaps between the two sides, and see it as reason to apply more pressure. Are there substantive differences between what the two governments want?
Secretary Moniz put it the best way, which is, the facts are the same on both sides. A good example to illustrate his statement: when folks talk here, they highlight the fact that Iran is scaling back its enrichment program by x amount of centrifuges, or around two-thirds. When the Iranians talk about it, they say, “we’re keeping 6,100 centrifuges.” So they’re saying the same thing, just differently. They’re each going to highlight different elements of it for their own constituencies.
Ultimately the reaction in both countries has been very different, but that is to be expected, both from the political system and how bipolar domestic politics has become in the U.S.
Perhaps the thorniest issue ahead of the June 30 deadline comprises both the timing and strength of sanctions relief. The U.S. insists that Iran will receive sanctions relief by executive action only after it fulfills some major commitments and pushes its “breakout” time, the period in which it can most quickly produce a warhead, to one year. U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew recently clarified that the president will not “ask Congress to vote to terminate sanctions” until “after many years of compliance.” Do you think there is willingness in Iran to accept a gradual pace of sanctions relief?
There is a lot of confusion about this in Iran, but this is also due to the fact that there is a lot of confusion at the negotiations. I’m not sure a lot of this has been fully settled yet, which is why the U.S. fact sheet wasn’t very clear about the sanctions relief timing. What are the key steps? So if we’re taking the case of Arak for instance, would the US verify that Iran started the process, or that the core has been removed, that the core has been destroyed or shipped out of the country? Which part of this is considered the vital step for Iran to get sanctions relief? That is a really tricky and important part of this process. Would Iran be able to deal with some sort of phasing? I think ultimately it will have to. A lot of what they’re saying now is posturing. You can’t expect all sanctions to be terminated at the same time; it’s just not going to happen.
President Rouhani and his team at the Foreign Ministry owe much of their success to the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There are few if any historical parallels in which Ayatollah Khamenei took such a pivotal position on such an important decision of international affairs. What do you make of his backing for the Rouhani administration?
Obviously, this is an issue where most Iranians agree that the negotiations are a good thing. But also the pushback from hardliners has been pretty vocal as well. What is interesting is the Supreme Leader, who is considered to be conservative, is positioning himself as a moderate in this process. This makes this issue a bit different from previous instances where he has been more on the conservative side of things.
Something I’ve found to be problematic in the way people talk about the Supreme Leader’s role in the negotiations is that everybody is quick to say he’s a conservative, and therefore whatever he is doing on the nuclear issue is conservative. On a number of issues he is very conservative—human rights, women’s rights, and cultural things generally. But on this particular issue he has been fairly centrist. I want to illustrate the fact that even his general stance on the West may be changing a little bit. In a recent statement, there is one piece that many people didn’t even look at, but that is extremely important. He says for the first time, these negotiations, if successful, will be “an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them [the West] on other issues.” This is the first time in a very long time where he is saying very openly, very publicly, that we are open to further engagement. A lot of people are not covering it as much in town because it goes against everything they’ve been arguing for years and years. Yes, he is ideological, but he also can be pragmatic when needed.
What explains the change in tone?
I think 2009 had a lot to do with it, and that is another thing that people are quick to dismiss. Washington always talks about how sanctions brought Iran to the table, and, yes, sanctions did have a pretty big role. But there is this idea of domestic politics and 2009 imposing a big reality check—forcing him to realize that he could be put aside. That was the first time his position and legitimacy were really challenged.
How will sanctions relief possibly affect Iran’s regional strategy?
I don’t think the outcome of the negotiations will fundamentally change Iran’s position in the region. A lot of what is going on in the region right now will have the same strategic significance regardless of whether or not there is an agreement. So regardless of a deal, Iran will continue to perceive the Islamic State as a key threat to its territorial security. It’ll continue to be active in Iraq as long as the Islamic State is there, and it will continue to support the same groups to the same extent.
Now a deal might facilitate some sort of coordination with the U.S., but I still don’t see in the immediate future more than tactical cooperation. Likewise with Syria. The fact that now everyone is saying we have to deal with Assad is reinforcing the idea that Iran was right and that they’ve pursued the right strategy in Syria and they’re not going to change that regardless of what happens. And Iran has managed to insert itself in the decision-making over Syria regardless of what happens in the negotiations. Deal or no deal, Iran will be included. In terms of the GCC, that will be a more complicated issue. Again, if there’s a deal there might be some sort of further escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That friction will be driven by the fear that Iran and the U.S. will return to their pre-1979 relations as well as by events in Yemen. But I don’t think what is going on there will be subject to change due to the negotiations.
If there is indeed better relations with the U.S. and Europe, then that might play a role in changing Iran’s behavior in the region. It could affect its cooperation with Hezbollah, or other militant groups, but I doubt Iran will be emboldened to do things. What Iran does is what it perceives to be strategically viable and strategically important. I don’t think it does anything for the sake of doing things. Sometimes it pokes the U.S. in the eye, or Israel or Saudi, and it might be a bit emboldened to do that, but not in a drastically different manner.
Thomas Friedman, in his analysis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election win, surprisingly makes Iran a focal point. In trying to portray Iran as the primary beneficiary of Netanyahu’s political success, Friedman oversimplifies the Iranian political establishment, characterizing its rejectionist position on Israel as uniform and unwavering. His article comes at a time of historic potential in US-Iran relations. Although Iran’s rejection of Zionism still anchors its policy in the Levant, Friedman ignores the possibilities that Iran and its conservative leaders could strike a pragmatic détente with a more moderate Israeli government than Netanyahu’s. He fails to consider that Iran’s political leaders may lament rather than celebrate the domination of Israeli national security by hawks.
Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries seized on populist anti-Israel sentiments from the onset of the revolution to consolidate their legitimacy; the issue now stands as a pillar of their revolutionary identity. As the Islamic Republic drifts farther away from the zeal of its early years, its willingness to reach pragmatic solutions regarding security threats (read: talks with the US) has greatly increased, notwithstanding fiery though usually empty rhetoric to the contrary. The space between what regime-aligned clerics say at Friday prayer sessions and how the state actually operates can easily confuse the reality of Iranian foreign policy. Rather than accept Iranian rhetoric prima facie, analysts should attempt to discern the leeway between the revolutionary principles to which the Iranian political elite must pay homage and the policies which they believe favor national interests.
Friedman’s use of blanket terms for Iran’s political establishment betrays a cliché understanding of Iranian politics. His clumsiness is perhaps akin to a foreign national mistaking the Republican congressional majority for having the final say over US policy. In imagining the Iranian response to the Israeli elections, he wrote: “They must have been doing high-fives and ‘Allahu akbars’ all night in the ruling circles of Tehran when they saw how low Bibi sank to win.” In this scenario of Islamic jubilation, Friedman assumes that all political elites in Iran agree, first of all, on perpetuating Iran’s 35-year old policy of enmity toward Israel, and secondly, on supporting a foreign executive leader aggressively opposed to their government. His “Allahu akbar” jibe directs the readers’ attention to the Islamic half of the Iranian republic, perhaps summoning whatever fears they associate with that sublime phrase so often blurted out by Muslim militants during acts of violence.
His following topic sentence assures the reader that this regime is indeed monolithic and united in its support of its loudest detractor abroad: “No one on the planet will enjoy watching Israel and America caught on the horns of this dilemma more than the clerical regime in Tehran. It is a godsend for them.” He forgets that in 2013 Iran elected a moderate administration, one which enjoys an unusual degree of support from the supreme leader and even some in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This administration flexed its diplomatic muscles in September 2013, when the president wished “all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah.” In reply to a tweet by Nancy Pelosi’s daughter asking foreign minister Javad Zarif to “end Iran’s Holocaust denial,” the latter wrote, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.” This rhetoric demonstrates how far many in Iranian politics have travelled since the days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s frequent scapegoating of Jews and Zionists. It also likely expresses an inhibited desire to reconcile Iran’s friction with Israel. The Rouhani Administration’s challenge to the right-wing of course transcends the Israel issue. The prolific Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji has exposed the full extent of this intra-government culture war. Friedman’s apparent ignorance of the possibility for divergent opinions of Israel, let alone of its elected leader, perpetuates the clash of civilizations myth central to Western conservatives’ animus toward Iran.
To be sure, the revolutionary principle of opposing the US and Israel remains ascendant. By recanting its official policy of resistance, the Islamic Republic would have to rewrite its narrative of legitimacy, opening the door for a democratic revision of its power structure. For foreign Shias drawn into Iran’s proxy orbit, such a shift in Iranian foreign relations could end their acceptance of Iranian leadership. Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq have joined Iranian-commanded militias in part due to the impression that Iran acts on behalf of Islamic interests, which include resistance to terrorism, American imperialism, and Israeli colonialism. Iran has relied on these actors for projecting power against multiple adversaries. Dropping this principle would strip its national security objectives of their transnational appeal. The only way to coax Iran from its “resistance” position would be to gradually open a space for it within a redrawn architecture for security in the Middle East. As remote as this possibility is, the politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu will further obscure it.
Interestingly, the same members of the right-wing who depend on friction with Israel to maintain their positions abroad and at home have a few reasons to prefer a more moderate Israeli government. Prime Minister Netanyahu has established himself as a chief antagonist to Iran’s national security. In the years preceding the current series of nuclear talks, he repeatedly cried wolf about Iran’s “imminent” breakout capacity and advocated for the credible threat of military confrontation. His government likely commissioned a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and assuredly colluded with the United States in its cyber-attacks on Iranian centrifuges. As the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, Israel under such a hawkish administration poses a serious threat. Israel has also antagonized Iran over Hezbollah and Syria, having struck at weapons convoys to the former and killed a senior Iranian general in the latter. Escalating tensions between the two has led Iran to develop a front along Syria’s border with the Golan Heights, where its goal is likely to better deter Israel from future airstrikes. These actions have balanced against Iran’s geopolitical resurgence, but at the cost of hindering diplomatic progress between it and the US, and in such a way that further encourages Iran to undermine an exclusionary system of order.
Friedman contends that, “few things serve Iran’s interests more than having radical Jewish settlers in a never-ending grinding conflict with Palestinians.” His statement, however, overestimates the importance of Palestine to Iranian foreign policy. When Hamas balked at Iran’s support for the Syrian regime, Iran did not blink an eye; its interest in maintaining influence in Syria and Lebanon trumped its interest in Palestinian resistance. Palestine is somewhat of a secondary if not tertiary issue for the Iranians, who have mostly exploited the issue in its relations with Israel and the US. Peace process with the Palestinians, furthermore, would likely require heavy involvement by Iran, thus generating greater leverage for the country.
While Iran’s conservatives may cherish the opportunity to sustain their antiquated revolutionary ideas in the fertile grounds sown by aggressive Israeli policies, Netanyahu’s opposition will restrain them from a range of diplomatic and military opportunities. Israel’s response to a nuclear deal and any warming of US-Iran relations is unpredictable; a unilateral strike at a sensitive Iranian target is not out of the question. A subsequent confrontation would surely deprive Iran of whatever sanctions relief it may have obtained and pit it against a vastly superior armed force. Contrary to Friedman’s declaration, Iran has an equally sound reason to prefer an administration less likely to obstruct it from these economic and security needs.
Few personages make Iran’s conservative elites more uneasy than Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karroubi. Throughout the Islamic Republic’s history, they have vied for power with the politically predominant right-wing clerical faction. Though they hail from the same revolutionary milieu as Ayatollah Khamenei, each has challenged the latter’s reactionary attitude toward popular opinion. They have represented popular opinions about the importance of free and fair voting to the overall functioning of the system, without repudiating the system itself. In the summer of 2009, the streets of Tehran erupted in protests against a presidential election perceived by many as fraudulent. Both Karroubi and Mousavi had run as reformist candidates and blamed their loss on the trickery of the incumbent Ahmadinejad administration. Spurred on by the public outrage, they broadened their confrontation with Ahmadinejad into a melee over the overall running of the state, dragging into the fight Ayatollah Khamenei, an arch-nemesis of left-wing clerics. Their clash has centered on two contrasting interpretations of the Islamic Revolution. Both sides support their agenda by using a favorable narrative of this revolution. These competing narratives demonstrate that the Islamic Revolution has never had one single meaning. Its memory can be invoked to justify armed resistance against the US one moment while in the next, to strengthen democracy. Mousavi and other reformists frame their movement as an outgrowth of the Islamic Revolution that pursues the same values.
In broad terms, two factors explain their persistent influence within an otherwise reactionary establishment: first, their positive historical relationship to Ayatollah Khomeini, and second, their masterful understanding of generational shifts, specifically of Iranian youth whose life experience encompasses neither the revolution nor the war. Their personal backstory, tied as it is to the consolidation of clerical power post-revolution, lends them an authentic voice within the government and without. Although Karroubi and Mousavi are under house arrest and all but barred from politics, they cannot easily be explained away as agents of the “Great Satan” and “Zionist Entity.” Furthermore, their progressive interpretation of the revolution is a potent alternative to the staid and recycled narrative propagated by right-wing elites. By embellishing the spirit of that revolution and interpolating the progressive values of the contemporary era, they have legitimized their past and also channeled opposition discourse into a platform of internal reform.
To understand their history as revolutionaries and historical antagonism with right-wing factions of the same camp, I have briefly profiled Karroubi and Mousavi below. Feel free to skip it if you are already familiar with the two. The information is sourced from biographical studies by Muhammad Sahimi, head of PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau.
Mehdi Karroubi studied theology in Qom’s seminaries and was a student of a primary proponent of the revolution, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. During Khomeini’s period of exile, Karroubi disseminated Khomeini’s dissident letters and advocated his revolutionary teachings, actions for which he was imprisoned numerous times by the Shah. Karroubi has served as a member of parliament throughout the republic’s history and taken a generally center-left position on questions of civil rights. Sahimi attributed Karroubi with one major moral lapse: the decision to back Khomeini’s persecution of erstwhile ally turned outspoken liberal critic, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. Montazeri famously spoke out against the state’s mass execution of political prisoners, in the order of a few thousand, in the summer of 1988. In a public letter designed to silence Montazeri, Karroubi and two other Khomeinist figures railed against what they depicted as open counterrevolution and sedition. This disagreement ended up costing Montazeri his political career–the mantle of the velayat-e faqih which he was slated to assume. At around the same time, nonetheless, Karroubi played a role in fostering liberal politics through founding the left-leaning Association of Combatant Clerics. Karroubi subsequently became a fixture of liberal politics in Iran and eventually formed a new political party, National Trust, and newspaper by the same name (etemad-e melli). It was on this ticket that he ran for the 2009 presidential election. During his campaign, he stressed the need to amend the Constitution to reinforce its democratic and progressive values.
Hossein Mir Mousavi surpassed Karroubi in the significance of his role to the Islamic Republic’s foundational narrative. Mousavi served as director of Khomeini’s de facto political party the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) 1979 to 1981 and as editor-in-chief of the party’s mouthpiece, Jomhouri-e Eslami. In 1981, he was put-forward as a second-choice candidate for the premiership by then-President Ali Khamenei. He served in this post until its abolition in 1989. Khamenei consistently opposed Mousavi openly as well as covertly, by disparaging his policies and making contentious decisions behind his back, including revolutionary provocations against the Saudis. The persistent back-stabbing so aggrieved him that he voluntarily sent in a letter of resignation, to which Khomeini–his chief supporter and reason for overcoming Khamenei’s objections–did not assent. Khomeini’s balancing of the left with the right has crystallized his legacy over the years into something sacred for both factions. This ambiguity has prevented either side from monopolizing the narrative of the revolution, leaving it open to constant reinterpretation, as if a palimpsest for the dominant faction to etch their side of the story. After the tumultuous end to his premiership and death of his patron, Mousavi quietly stayed out of politics for well over the next decade. He reentered the political stage, however, for the 2009 elections and stepped onstage to thunderous applaud from the reformist quarters. He won widespread endorsements and, in the wake of widely perceived election fraud, became the face of the Green Movement.
Mousavi and these other figures tell a compelling and dynamic story of the Islamic Revolution. It begins with a proud and enlightening moment for the people in 1979, a changed consciousness unshackled from the tyranny of the Shah and the West. Certain values central to the revolution, such as plurality and popular sovereignty, were not well respected by the government which followed it. What they fail to mention is their complicity in actively disregarding those same values in order to ensure the clerics’ ascendance over the new regime.
This revisionism aside, these same figures, now unequivocally reformist in stature, support the further progress toward the values of freedom and human rights embedded in the Islamic Revolution but left out of governance by the victors. These retrospectively declared true values of the 1979 revolution inform the goals of the Green Movement: “We are not up against our holy political system and its legal structure, it protects our freedom, independence and the Islamic Revolution. We are up against lies and deviations and we wish to reform it [the system] by returning to the pure principles of the Islamic Revolution.”
Perhaps Mousavi is correct in stating that the 1979 revolution never reached its conclusions, and perhaps it never will. The lofty values of justice and equality that all post-enlightenment revolutions have in one shape or form aspired to attain have proven out-of-reach for terrestrial governments. Revolutionaries of course recognize aspects of those platonic values and strive to reflect them in society. Inevitably, the policies and programs they create cannot achieve the perfect representation of the values they stand for. The limits of human reason simply prevent revolutions from ever producing the utopias they are supposed to. If the values can never be fully comprehended and guaranteed by policy, then so too can the revolution never end. A revolutionary government might achieve certain goals, but it cannot live up to the optimism that first captivated the masses. As one set of goals is accomplished, an entirely new set arises out of the inadequacy of the first, and the abstract values that initially compelled people to action are still by and large absent from reality. Mousavi based his leadership of the Green Movement on this idea of an unfinished revolution:
“30 years ago a revolution under the banner of Islam was victorious; a revolution to revive freedom and human rights; a revolution for honesty. During this period, particularly when our enlightened Imam was still living, the nation invested heavily in terms of human lives, wealth, and credibility, in order to consolidate this achievement, which brought us further achievements. The light that we had never experienced before filled our society, and people gained new lives that, although very difficult, were sweet and rewarding. What our people had gained were human rights and freedom, and uncorrupted lives. I am certain that those who experienced this life will never settle for anything less.”
Revolution, in other words, is a doctrine of progressive change. To affirm the links between the present struggle with the past one, Mousavi emphasized the Islamic quality of both. He even obliquely attacked the manipulation of religion by the right-wing, claiming that the Islamic nature of the 1979 revolution pervaded the protest movement:
“The same generation that is accused of distancing itself from the religious values arrived at the chants of ‘Allah-o Akbar,’ and relied on ‘victory belongs to God and the defeat [of the enemy] is close,’ Hossein and Khomeini, in order to prove that whenever this pure generation bears fruits, the fruits are similar [to those of 1979]. They learned this from none other than God. How unfair are those who, due to the pity interest that they have, are forced to claim that this miracle of the Islamic Revolution is a creature of the foreigners and represents a ‘velvet revolution.'”
The conversation about the 1979 revolution is alive and well and in fact central to the political future of the country. The divergent interpretations of the true meaning of this revolution obliges one to ask, which version of the revolution happened and for what purpose? Or was the revolution essentially an umbrella of distinct yet interrelated opposition movements? The rift between the reformist and right-wing clerics shows that even within a distinct sub-movement, there is no consensus or unity of purpose. At that point, with so little coherence, is it not absurd to ask why a revolution happened at all? The revolution is almost less an historical event than it is a vehicle for discussing current politics. Opposition discourse depends upon one interpretation of the revolution, while opposition to the opposition depends on a different notion of the same thing. The dispute over history is unlikely to ever be resolved, but its importance to the present is a fact of political life.
Significant primary source evidence of Iranian involvement in Syria, and, more importantly, of candid battlefield reflections, has recently surfaced.
Last May, an IRGC commander named Abdullah Eskandari was killed in action in Morek, a town near Hama on the highway to Aleppo, according to insurgents. Hama would place him quite far afield of the IRGC’s declaratory policy of defending the Sayedda Zainab shrine in Damascus. In confirmation of his death, rebels posted pictures of his severed head cratered by the sniper bullet that killed him.
The “War is Boring” blog at Medium published an article revealing the contents of a battlefield notebook allegedly belonging to the General. A picture of one page of Persian scrawl from the notebook accompanies the blog post, but its source as well as the author is unnamed. The unique stories published by War is Boring, particularly on Iranian subjects, demand inspection that does not assume fabrication but rather speculates on the sources.
“War is Boring” has published articles in the past based on unreferenced primary source information, which, due to the lack of citation, appears more like leaked intelligence than anything else. The subject matter of this article seems to fall under the purview of War is Boring contributor Jassem al-Salami, who publishes almost all of the site’s content on Iranian military inventory and tactics. Al-Salami, interestingly, has no digital footprint outside of his well-written and conspicuously knowledgeable accounts of Iranian military affairs.
For someone with as much presumed credibility as he, his background as an investigative journalist should be but is not publicly established. Barring him this, Jassem al-Salami seemingly amounts to a pseudonym. The rate at which he produces unverifiable yet probably true information suggests that he serves in either an intelligence body or otherwise enjoys confidential access that obligates pseudonymity. Al-Salami has (obviously) signed bylines for his past work and nothing would explain why he wouldn’t do the same for this article. My guess is that the author is known by al-Salami and knows people in either the opposition or the IRGC who are well-informed of the details transpiring from Eskandari’s death.
Now to the substance. Most significantly, Eskandari’s departing gift portrays the pools of manpower from which the Assad regime draws its strength as dwindling. Eskandari sketched a bleak picture of the available manpower in Hama, his place of death, and also elsewhere in the southern province of Da’ara.
He estimated some 13,000 rebels actively resisting the government in the five districts of Hama. In contrast, he estimated the force size of the paramilitary National Defense Force (NDF) for the province at five brigades of 1,000 men each. He also noted the presence of a “small army contingent.” At that ratio of at least 2 insurgents to every 1 soldier, the regime can, at best, hope that it will hold on to whatever territory remains in its hands. Sustained counterinsurgency offensives in Hama would be, on principle, infeasible; for such operations to succeed, government forces must sizably outnumber insurgents, who vastly benefit by not having to govern or hold urban centers. The disarray in Hama should dispel any expectation that the regime will regain Syria’s hinterlands, perhaps ever. Moreover, the weakness of the army in the province as noted by Eskandari affirms the devolution of central authority. Localized militias such as the NDF work best in defensive positions. They have formed in reaction to the anti-minority agenda of the dominant Syrian rebel groups and ally with Assad if only to protect their communities. It is unlikely that they would venture out of province to fight and die for the regime. One wonders if in the future, the strategic balance could reverse, seeing pro-government pockets of Syria wage an insurgency against an Islamist state oppressive of the minorities that once resisted it.
Eskandari also recommends replacing disintegrated army divisions in Dara’a with paramilitaries, likely the NDF, effectively emphasizing how far the authority of Damascus has crumbled. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has deteriorated to such an advanced stage that local militias, lacking in strategic depth, now hold down entire provinces.
In the most interesting point he makes, Eskandari suggests that “line-breakers,” or light infantry deployed in blitz-like offensives, could come from Iran. This IRGC-concocted tactic is designed to counter rebels’ anti-tank missiles. The author describes its previous use in Syria:
“During the Iranian-led regime offensive in the Qalamun Mountains norther of Damascus, Hezbollah formed pioneer groups riding on motorcycles and lightly armored all-terrain vehicles. The pioneers advanced under artillery and tank fire, which suppressed rebel snipers and machine guns. The pioneers got close to rebel lines … and stayed there. Their fire kept the rebel missile teams from moving into positions—and that allowed Syrian tanks to safely advance.”
His suggestion for the use of Iranian personnel signals a commitment by IRGC commanders to maintaining an upper hand in this conflict. Eskandari deemed expansion of regime-controlled territory through line-breaking as worthy of escalated Iranian support, including manpower. For one, this means that Iranian strategists still plan for battlefield successes despite the greatly attenuated state of Assad’s military. The IRGC clearly considers the territory along Syria’s main north-south highway as strategic with or without the presence of formal branches of the Assad regime. The notebook views the SAA in a dismissive manner and suggests in tactical observations the transition of security duties to Iran, Hizballah, and the NDF. This confirms much of the analysis out there on the regime’s war effort and reinforces, for better or worse, the notion of a military occupation by Iran.