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Expert View: Iran’s Response Options in Syria

Syria Deeply speaks with experts in our community to understand what Iran’s options and likely next moves in Syria will be after the U.S. cruise missile strike against Assad.

Written by Kim Bode, Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Aftermath of the U.S. missile attack on a Syrian military airbase.Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik via AP

Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base on Thursday night, which the Trump administration said was in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syria Deeply asked our expert community about some of the most pressing questions raised by the crisis. As part of this series, we asked experts how they think Iran will respond.

Hassan Hassan, coauthor of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy: That is the biggest mystery. Tehran will likely wait to see what Russia will do. Any response from Iran will involve increasing Washington’s fear for American personnel in Syria and Iraq. This has been a consistent policy from Iran for many years, something that worked well against the previous administration. Another reason that makes me think Iran will choose this path is because the idea behind the strikes has a lot to do with Iran, and less to do with Russia and the regime, and affects Iran in at least two countries, namely Syria and Iraq. This administration has been consistent about its desire to roll back Iranian influence in the region, in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. In Yemen, the U.S. has dramatically increased its support to the Gulf states battling the Iranian-backed Houthis and their allies there. In Iraq and Syria, as I understand the thinking within the administration, the process of rolling back Iranian influence will be more deliberate and long-term. Iran might seek to raise the costs of such a policy, and it might choose to do it itself.

Valerie Szybala, executive director, the Syria Institute: I think they will probably want to not be a big player in this. It’s kind of been their m.o. in Syria the whole time, to do what they are going to do on the ground, a lot of it quietly. They intervened in Syria pretty early, well before they announced it, and not just through proxies but with people on the ground. They’re not Russia. They’re not out there to make a statement with everything. That would be my assumption. Because the more Iran becomes visible in this, the more vulnerable it becomes to Israel. I bet the U.S. intervention has opened the door for more potential intervention. It’s empowered actors who have been restraining themselves. I’m sure they’ll condemn it. I’m sure Iran’s response will be to have articles where they condemn it and maybe make statements with no real desire to get involved.

Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The problem for the Iranians is, in Syria, they’ve already become, as important as they are, the secondary partner. As much as they cringe at the idea, the Russians are the main power broker when it comes to the geopolitics of the Syrian civil war. The reality is that the Russians and Iranians are not really on the same page in terms of what kind of strategic outcome they’re trying to secure and why. The Iranians can’t really do much within Syria proper. They can make things more complicated in the Golan, but it is very clear where that escalatory ladder will go. The Israelis have already been signaling for some time that if [they] are provoked, [they’re] ready to do something. Everybody has to be very careful about a race to the bottom in the scheme of escalation because this is an administration that will feel vulnerable if it’s pushed. And because it could feel vulnerable it could act in unpredictable ways. And the Iranians and the Russians, because of their autocratic regime structures, [will have to think deeply about] how to judge this based on the new realities of the personality of the U.S. president and his immediate advisers.

Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver: Iran does have cards that it could play in terms of attacking U.S. targets in the Middle East and in Afghanistan in particular. It has a substantial number of its own forces, revolutionary guard forces, security forces in Lebanon, Syria, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I suspect if the conflict intensifies and there are further U.S. airstrikes, particularly if Iranian revolutionary guard personnel is killed, then you can expect a sort of retaliation by Iranians in terms of trying to attack U.S. assets in the region. One point of confrontation that I think we can expect if Iran decides to respond, will be in the Persian Gulf, where there have been dozens of close calls between Iranian naval aircraft and American aircraft coming very close, firing warning shots. That’s a point of confrontation that could lead to an escalation.

We know that the closest foreign policy advisers that Donald Trump has around him, particularly James Mattis, have been on record in the past as advocating sort of a strike against Iran for its bad behavior in the region. I think the foreign policy advisers of Donald Trump have Iran in their sights. The long-term plan from what we know of the Trump administration and its foreign policy is that it really wants to also send a message to Iran. And we’re hearing that also from supporters of Trump, that this airstrike sends a message not just to Bashar al-Assad but also to Tehran.

These statements have been edited for length and clarity.

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