“I think Syria is a real window into the soul of the Iranian regime and a real test of whether or not Rouhani has not only different intentions than his predecessor but whether he has the capacity to implement a significant shift in Iranian foreign and national security policy,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“The question is really how does Tehran’s revolutionary elite see Syria and does Rouhani’s perception of Syria depart in any way from the supreme leader” and the military, Mr. Dubowitz said. “If Rouhani were a moderate leader, then is he using his influence to question the supreme leader’s support for the Assad regime in Syria?”
Meanwhile, the extent and details of the relationship between Iran and Syria remains mysterious, although the two nations have been allies to some extent since the 1980s, when Syria was the only major Arab state to side with Iran in its war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
For instance, it is difficult to gauge whether Tehran was directly involved in Mr. Assad’s recent decision to use chemical weapons against rebel-held civilian areas. Iran was itself the victim of the most-widespread and significant use of chemical weapons since their development a century ago — by Saddam during their nations’ eight-year war.
“My sense is that the Iranian leadership is very ticked off at Assad,” said Mr. Parsi, who added that some in Tehran likely see the Syrian president as acting recklessly and thus “undermining their objective of making sure that [he] survives.”
Alternatively, Mr. Dubowitz contends that “Assad would not have used chemical weapons without the approval and the knowledge” of key players in Tehran, if only Gen. Suleimani, since he is believed to be in control of Iranian forces on the ground inside Syria.
“I don’t believe there’s a strategic and operational gap between the Iranian regime and Assad,” Mr. Dubowitz said. “So it may turn out to be a massive Iranian miscalculation to have permitted Assad to use chemical weapons. I think the reason they did though is because they truly believed President Obama was bluffing. I don’t think they thought he was serious about intervening in Syria.”
One of the more outlandish calls for retribution to a possible U.S. strike appeared last week from Iranian blogger Ali Reza Forghani, who called for kidnapping and “amputations” of American civilians worldwide.
Within hours of a U.S. strike on Syria “a family member of every U.S. minister, U.S. ambassadors and U.S. military commanders around the world will be abducted,” Mr. Forghani wrote in a post that also personally warns Mr. Obama that there are many people “all around the world that can assault [your daughter] Sasha.”
But Western analysts say Mr. Forghani, while being known for radical positions and posting from a country that tightly regulates Internet access, has a narcissistic streak, and they do not believe he represents the official Iranian line.
Reza Kahlili contributed to this report. Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym for a former CIA operative in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and author of “A Time to Betray.”