Iran’s Syria policy hurts its regional popularity


By Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme and Islam Al Tayeb, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

These days, there are not many things that Arabs agree on. In fact, it may be fair to say they agree to disagree more often than not when it comes to regional policy. But Iran, once the darling of the Arab Street, is finding both popular and government opinion turning against it. And at the heart of the matter lies official Iranian attitude towards sectarianism and the Syrian uprising.

For years, Iran, and especially Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, enjoyed the unwavering support of the Arab general public, especially following the 2006 war in Lebanon. Many perceived Iran as the outspoken guardian of the Muslim world; a country that had the guts to oppose compromise in the Arab-Israeli peace process and support Hizbullah in its struggle against Israel. But this is no longer the case, and Iran knows it.

So the Iranian regime is trying to regain some positive influence. It’s partly why Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was in Amman, Jordan, recently to meet Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and King Abdullah II. Jordan’s government welcomed the opportunity to discuss Syria with their Iranian counterparts. But the response was different in Parliament: Bassam al-Manaseer, chairman of the Arab and Foreign Relations Committee of the Jordanian Parliament, called the visit ‘unwelcomed’ and expressed his concerns over ‘suspicious’ Iranian activities in the region.

Read the full article in the Atlantic

Uncertain chemical-weapons claims in Syria

The Syrian city of Aleppo. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/watchsmart

The Syrian city of Aleppo

Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.

Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.

What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.

If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.

Read the full article at The Diplomat

Halting a chemical weapons nightmare in Syria

Bab Amro, Homs (Photo: Freedom House)

‘The first step is to accept that nothing is clear in Syria’ says IISS Research Associate Dina Esfandiary in a new piece for the  The Diplomat on the possibility that the regime might be preparing chemical weapons for use against rebel forces.  

‘Given the latest developments in Syria, fear that Assad will resort to these weapons is not unreasonable. Pressure must be mounting for Syria’s ruler, as the rebels advance and his army proves increasingly unable to push them back. Logic dictates that if Assad truly fears for his survival, then the use of his most potent weapon may not be so far-fetched.’

However, she cautions: ‘We should measure our alarm. A reckless assumption that Assad will use chemical weapons could get us in all sorts of trouble – remember what happened in Iraq?’

There are only two ways the world can respond right now she concludes: preparation in case of the worst and ‘establishing unequivocal clear red lines’ to deter any use of chemical weapons.

Read the full article

Iran’s currency woes: how damaging for the regime?

'A fistful of Rials'

The value of Iranian rials. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Scarto

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Protests erupted in Tehran on Wednesday after Iran’s currency, the rial, lost about 60% of its value over just eight days. Although the protests are unlikely to be the ‘beginning of the end’ for the Iranian regime, they demonstrate that discontent is rife, and will put the government on edge in the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections.

The currency crisis

The rial’s downward trend is not new: the currency fell gradually from 10,000 rials to the dollar in November 2011 to 16,000 rials to the dollar over the summer. But in the past week it has taken an abrupt turn for the worse, dropping to 37,500 rials to the dollar on Tuesday. The exchange rate had improved to 32,000 rials to the dollar by Thursday, but the crisis, which President Ahmadinejad blames on a ‘foreign conspiracy’, shows few signs of abating. Read the rest of this entry »

Iran’s nuclear power: what do we know?

The former US embassy, Tehran

The former US embassy, Tehran. Photo Credit:Flickr Creative Commons/ninara

Dina Esfandiary, research associate and project coordinator for the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament programme, has published an article titled ‘Iran’s Nuclear Power: What Do We Know?’ in Politique Etranger, the journal of the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI).

Amid competing opinions on Iran’s true motivations and capabilities, the US’s official assessment is that Iran has not yet decided to ‘go nuclear,’ Esfandiary writes. Yet there are many potential gaps in our knowledge of the issue. How can we be sure if governments have all the necessary intelligence to be certain about Iran’s intentions? In her report, Esfandiary ‘seeks to explore and explain’ how much we really know about Iran’s nuclear powers. She outlines the opposing views on Iran, how intelligence has been gathered and used in the past, and analyses how intelligence could detect whether Iran is attempting to weaponise its capabilities.

Read the full article.

Mohammed Morsi in Iran: Genius or amateur?

Mohammed Morsi and  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Last week’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran opened to what some considered rather surprising rhetoric on the Syrian uprising, especially given the context. This demonstrated two things: That Egypt’s newly elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, is conscious of the diplomatic game and will adamantly pursue the independence of Egyptian foreign policy – and that Iran’s Islamic regime will stop at nothing to prove that they are not isolated.

The NAM summit invitation was a catch-22 for Morsi, writes Dina Esfandiary in an article for Al-Monitor. If he declined, it would have made a strong anti-Iran statement. Choosing to go, however, made Egypt’s neighbors and the US nervous. Ultimately, the Egyptian president went to Tehran, but spoke boldly against the Assad regime, a staunch Iranian ally. With that move, he made all parties both happy and unhappy.

Read the full article at Al-Monitor

Iran’s Syrian endgame

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad granting the Grand National Order of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Bashar al-Assad in October 2010.

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Analyst and Project Co-Ordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Last week, 48 Iranian ‘pilgrims’ were kidnapped by the opposition in Syria. The circumstances surrounding their capture led many to allege that they were in fact members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) sent to assist Syrian government forces in crushing the rebellion. This brought Iran’s assistance to its long-standing ally to the forefront of international attention.

Many argue that the stakes for Iran are high because the fall of Assad will dramatically curtail Iran’s ability to project its power in the region. Although the collapse of the current Syrian regime will certainly hinder Iran, its impact will not be nearly as severe as many would have you believe. Indeed, Iran is likely to adapt to these changing regional dynamics just as it has always done in the past.

Read the rest of this entry »

Syria’s chemical weapons menace

Soldiers from the California National Guard conduct training at the Arctic Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Site on JBER-Richardson. (U.S. Air Force photo/Percy G. Jones)

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Analyst and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme  

The international community was panic-stricken earlier this month when a spokesperson from Syria’s Foreign Ministry announced, ‘No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used… inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.’

This statement was notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was the first time a Syrian official acknowledged what the world has long known - that Syria has stockpiled chemical weapons (CW). Secondly, because everyone’s worst fear – the possibility of their use – was not only mentioned but also confirmed, at least in reaction to a foreign intervention. Furthermore, besides the statement itself, Syria’s state of civil war inevitably leads to fears that the regime will lose control of its chemical weapon stockpiles. This scenario is all the more troubling given the alleged presence of al-Qaeda linked fighters in the country.  Read the rest of this entry »

Can Iranian nuclear talks progress at Baghdad?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the press following of a P5+1 meeting at the UN headquarters during the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, New York September 23, 2009. [State Department photo / Public Domain]

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Analyst and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The positive atmosphere  surrounding the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul this month will be tested just over three weeks from now in a further meeting in Baghdad. Both sides seem to have embarked on an intensive PR campaign to lighten the mood, dampen the calls for war and demonstrate the willingness to compromise in the upcoming talks over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme and uranium enrichment.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi recently said the Istanbul talks had produced ‘results that satisfied both sides’. ‘At the Baghdad meeting, I see more progress,’ he predicted.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why Iranian Public Opinion Is Turning Against the Nuclear Program

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear facility

It’s been a busy few weeks for our non-proliferation programme, with developments in Iran and North Korea; and research analyst Dina Esfandiary is the latest to have a major feature published. In the Atlantic, she writes that, with sanctions biting in Iran, opinion polls suggest that the public’s support for Tehran’s nuclear programme is weakening. ‘Western officials and media outlets often say that it wouldn’t matter if the regime changed because support for the program cuts across political lines,’ she writes. However, recent polls – ‘assuming they’re accurate’ – indicate three things about Iranian public opinion: ‘There seems to have been a significant drop in Iranian support for a nuclear energy program, more Iranians are aware of how sensitive the issue is … and less than half of those polled are in favour of developing a nuclear weapon.’

Read the full article


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