- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2013

They’re weighing whether to order Hezbollah to launch rockets at Israel or target U.S. warships in the Mediterranean. Or they could send shadowy groups for suicide-bomb attacks against Israelis and Americans. Or, as one blogger has called for, they could try kidnapping families of American military officers in far-flung corners of the globe.

Or Iran may do nothing.

One thing, however, is clear: The debate over whether Congress approves the Obama administration’s plan to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons is being watched nowhere more closely than in Iran, where the notoriously opaque political leaders are wrestling over whether — and how — to retaliate.

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The range of statements emanating from Tehran in the past week has shown that Iran’s leaders are apparently not in agreement over exactly what they would do.

“If there are strikes, there’s going to be an intense debate inside Iran as to whether or not respond, and if so how,” says Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council. “I think it’s quite clear that the more moderate elements are not particularly inclined to get involved in a direct confrontation with the U.S.”

Both Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the general in charge of the nation’s elite military force have said a U.S. strike will result in attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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In a story posted last week on the website of Al Manar TV — the Hezbollah-linked network in Lebanon — Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who heads Iran’s Quds Force was quoted saying that in the event of a U.S. strike, the region’s nations “will be the graveyards of the Americans.”

Some foreign-policy insiders in Washington have read such remarks as an indication that Mr. Suleimani — widely believed to control Iranian Quds forces as well as those Hezbollah units fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad — might order the launch of missiles at U.S. military assets in the region in response to an American strike.

But a careful reading of the whole range of statements coming from Iran in recent days reveals other potentially influential voices embracing a measurably softer tenor.

In remarks Tuesday, the speaker of Iran’s parliament made no mention of potential retaliatory action against the U.S. — instead favoring a broadly worded lament that “one of the problems in the region today is that the Americans create turbulence but are not able to control it.”

“If Syria is attacked militarily, the same trend will be repeated in the country,” speaker Ali Larijani told an audience at a conference in the northern Iranian city of Noshahr on Tuesday, according to the nation’s Fars News Agency.

His comments mirrored a carefully worded assessment last week by Iran’s newly inaugurated President Hasan Rouhani, a man some Western observers cite as an emerging moderate with the potential to redirect foreign policy away from the posturing embraced by predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Any adventurism in the region will pose irreparable dangers to its stability and the world and will merely lead to the spread of extremism and terrorism in the region,” Mr. Rouhani was quoted as saying Aug. 28.

The statement made no explicit reference to possible Iranian retaliation to a U.S. strike and could, conceivably, be read as a call for calm even among Iran-backed forces in Syria.

However, most observers in Washington are still trying to make sense of Mr. Rouhani’s relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei and Gen. Suleimani.

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