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