How Iran Might Respond to a US Military Strike on Syria

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: One of the things we're hearing a lot from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, something I spoke to Todd about just a moment ago, that a strike on Syria is needed in part to send a message to Iran. So what message is Tehran actually hearing? Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a former spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiators and a longtime aid of Iran's newly elected President, Hassan Rouhani. He's now a research scholar at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. I asked him how the Iranian government interprets the US debate about Syria.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian: They can not imagine the issue is chemical weapons because Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons with the support of the US against Iran during the war, 1980 to 1988. One hundred thousand Iranians, they were killed or injured by chemical weapons where and when material and technology was provided by the US. Therefore Iranians, they cannot imagine really the issue for the US is chemical weapons. The US has used nuclear weapons and the US has supported Saddam for the use of chemical weapons. Now, they say 1400 people, they have been killed during the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It's really a disaster, but more disastrous was the time one hundred thousand Iranians, they were killed during the war and the US supported Saddam.

Werman: Right. So what does Iran think the issue really is then?

Mousavian: They believe the US is just after a regime change.

Werman: Maybe you should tell us how you think Iran's leadership would react if the US strike Syria. Would they retaliate?

Mousavian: I cannot imagine Iran would go for a direct retaliation or a direct engagement in the war with the US if the US attacks Syria. However, any type of military strike would have consequences beyond Syria because nobody would be able to control the consequences and nobody can predict the consequences.

Werman: Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a former spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiators. I also spoke with Karim Sadjadpour about this. Sadjadpour is Middle East Analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I asked him how he thinks Iran might react to a US military strike on Syria.

Karim Sadjadpour: I think it's within the realm of possibilities that Iran would kinda give the go-ahead Hezbollah in Lebanon to launch some missiles into Israel. But at the same time Iran is spread extremely thin. They’re spending enormous amounts of money in Syria to keep the Assad regime afloat and they would have to think twice about opening up another war front with Israel which is going to spread them even thinner.

Werman: Who exactly in Washington is subscribing to the view that Iran needs to be brought into decision-making on Syria? I mean how alive is this?

Sadjadpour: For the last two years since the Syrian uprising began, I think this has been part of the conversation, that Iran needs to be engaged on Syria. But I think a challenge is that the way Iran uses Syria is akin to how America uses Israel. Syria is Iran's indispensable regional ally and they use the word "sacrosanct" to describe Syria's security, the same way the United States uses the word "sacrosanct" to describe Israel security. So really for Iran, until now it's been a zero sum game. They're putting all their bets to make sure that Assad doesn't fall and one side of a conflict sees it as a zero sum game, then it becomes a zero sum game. It's very difficult to negotiate with them when it's all or nothing and I think already we're starting to read that the Obama Administration is pitching this to Congress by saying, "We need to send a strong signal to Iran. If we vote no against military action in Syria, Iran is going to see this as a green light to move forward with their nuclear ambitions.

Werman: And do you think that that's a likely scenario? That that would happen if Congress votes no?

Sadjadpour: I really think regardless of how Congress votes, Iran's nuclear ambitions are probably going to remain the same, meaning I think that Iran is in pursuit of nuclear weapons capability and whether the US chooses to bomb Syria or whether the US chooses to stay out of Syria, I think Iran is going to continue to take this deliberate approach toward a nuclear weapons capability.

Werman: That's Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East Analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.