"If America were to attack Syria, Iran along with Syria's allies will take action, which would amount to a fiasco for America." So said deputy for culture and propaganda of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Assoudi, almost exactly one year ago. "In the case of American stupidity and a military attack by this country on Syria, the joint military pact of Syria's allies would be implemented," Assoudi said.
The comment, though scrapped from the record of Iran's state media, pointed to the Syria-Iran alliance (reportedly formalized into an actual mutual defense pact signed in 2006) that has long informed and shaped U.S. decision-making about intervention in Syria. But, and this is crucial, one year ago, Iranian officials like Asoodi could make bold and direct threats about U.S. intervention in Syria: When inaction seems probable, grandstanding about revenge is possible.
But now, as the Obama administration pushes with a rhetoric of moral absolutism towards another war, Iranian comments in support of its ally Assad against a U.S. attack have softened. Now U.S. attacks are probable, threats of a strong military response from Iran have become muted. We've come a long, sad way, baby.
Last month a Middle East analyst in Tehran told the Guardian that the Ayatollah Khamenei had softened his rhetoric (and the bombastic war cries of Iran's military commanders) because the threat of U.S. attacks on Syria were becoming all too real. Now, while Iran's official line is still a vociferous condemnation of any possible U.S. intervention in Syria, there have been no promises, like that from Assoudi last year, of retaliation. Instead, the Ayatollah and military generals have made reference to divine revenge on the U.S. -- the sort that entails no commitment to an armed response. Assoudi said, "God willing, the flames of this conflagration will set Zionism's robe ablaze" -- it's a far cry from last years vow that Iran "will take action."
Some Iranian officials have even denied the existence of any formal mutual defense treaty between its government and Assad's. Although numerous reports in 2006 noted that following a meeting in Tehran between Iranian Vice President Mohammed Reza Aref and Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari, such a pact was made. The softening of Iranian anti-American oration over Syria suggests, however, that Iran would be unlikely to act militarily if (when) U.S. missiles strike. Indeed, analysts have not failed to notice the possible benefits to Iran of seeing the fall of its secular, despotic ally Assad. Conservative Islamist voices within Iran reportedly welcome U.S. attacks on Syria, citing (as the Guardian highlighted) a host of possible benefits to Tehran and Islamist interests in the region. U.S. intervention could "hasten the collapse of the Saudi and Qatari regimes; incite the Syrian population to destroy the Salafist rebel forces; and unify the remaining Islamic factions in the war zone against the U.S. and Israel."
The shift in Iranian officials' rhetoric over the U.S. and Syria should be seen as an important corollary to the American war drum's growing din. Just one year ago, as Reuters reported at the time, there was "little or no appetite in Washington" for military action against Syria. But now, with the election year far behind us, the appetite has grown and the table is set for intervention. Whether or how Iran will act in defense of Assad remains a somewhat unknown element in the geo-political calculus. What's certain: A 2006 mutual defense treaty will not be the determining factor. Iran and the axis of anti-Israel, anti-American allies, like the U.S. and its Western allies, pick and choose their "red lines", "necessary" actions, binding treaties and moral absolutes according to (and only according to) the vagaries of national interests at a given time.