News Column

Iran President, Supreme Ruler at Odds on Syria

September 6, 2013

Iran's new president says Tehran will send humanitarian aid to Syria if Washington attacks it, but didn't repeat an earlier hardliner vow to attack Israel.

At the same time, Supreme Ruler of Iran Ali Khamenei said the United States would make a mistake in attacking Syria and would "definitely suffer" as a result.

In addition, U.S. intelligence intercepted an Iranian order to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials told The Wall Street Journal.

"If something happens to the Syrian people, the Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duties to send them food and medicine," President Hassan Rouhani told Iran's Assembly of Experts, a deliberative body of Islamic theologians that elects and removes Iran's supreme leader and supervises his activities.

Khamenei, as supreme ruler, is Iran's head of state and highest ranking political and religious authority.

Rouhani, an Assembly of Experts member since 1999, described the situation in Syria as "dire" and condemned "military attacks on countries in this region, especially on Syria," but made no mention in his remarks of retaliation against Israel.

The commander in chief of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps said last week an attack on Syria would lead to the "destruction of Israel."

Khamenei said in remarks reported by state-run Press TV U.S. officials had no right to make "humanitarian claims [given] their track record" in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Diplomats and analysts said they were not sure if Rouhani's moderate message represented a significant policy shift in Iran.

Nader Karimi Joni, an independent analyst and chief editor of Iranian sociopolitical magazine Gozaresh, told the Los Angeles Times he interpreted Rouhani's reserved offer as following through on campaign promises to give priority to Iranians' desire for improved living conditions and an end to international isolation.

The Times said Rouhani appeared to be outmaneuvering hard-liners in curbing overblown vows to defend Syria from threatened U.S. airstrikes.

Iran, along with Russia, remains Syria's most important ally, a source of material support and intelligence.

Iran's state-run media increasingly broadcast programs reminding people Iranians suffered chemical weapons attacks during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, The Washington Post reported.

Rouhani separately announced Thursday nuclear negotiations, to resume Sept. 27 after a five-month hiatus, would be run by Iran's Foreign Ministry, headed by new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated diplomat and longtime former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations who is familiar to many U.S. officials.

Previous stalemated nuclear talks under the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who left office Aug. 3, were under the control of the religious hierarchy's Supreme National Security Council, led by nuclear negotiator and council Secretary Saeed Jalili.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Washington hoped the move signaled a willingness to "engage substantively." If so, Iran "will find a willing partner in the United States," she said.

Rouhani and Zarif both sent Rosh Hashana greetings Wednesday evening via Twitter to Jews celebrating the new year.

"As the sun is about to set here in Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashana," Rouhani's message said.

At the same time, the interception of the Tehran order to Shiite militias in Iraq concerned U.S. officials, who told the Journal President Obama's delay in a possible U.S. strike increased opportunities for coordinated retaliation by groups allied with the Assad regime.

U.S. officials said the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was a likely target. They didn't describe other potential targets the intelligence indicated.

The State Department issued an alert Thursday warning U.S. citizens against non-essential travel to Iraq and citing terrorist activity "at levels unseen since 2008."

An alert earlier this year said anti-American violence in Iraq had decreased.

Source: Copyright UPI 2013

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