Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on Sept. 3.
(BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Summary

Conventional wisdom says that a weakened Syria would undermine Iran's regional influence, but a U.S. military intervention in
the country could actually benefit Tehran. The government there has
devised a sophisticated strategy for responding to a U.S. attack. Of
course, Tehran would activate its militant proxies in the region,
including Hezbollah, in the event that the United States launches an
attack, but it would also exploit Washington's visceral opposition to
Sunni jihadist and Islamist groups to gain concessions elsewhere.




Analysis

Iran already has engaged
diplomatically with many of those involved in the Syrian conflict. Over
the past weekend, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the foreign affairs and national
security head for the Iranian parliament, led a delegation to Damascus,
presumably to discuss the potential U.S. attack. Earlier on Aug. 29,
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani over the phone. Their conversation followed U.N.
Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman's visit to
Tehran, where he and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
likewise discussed Syria. Even the Omani sultan paid a rare visit to
Iran, reportedly carrying with him positive messages from the Obama administration for Iran's new government.

Notably, the rhetoric from Tehran — particularly from its military
leadership — has been relatively tame. Typically the government
antagonizes Washington when U.S.-Iranian tensions heat up, and indeed
the Syria situation has aggravated tensions. Syria is a critical Iranian
ally, and the survival of the al Assad regime is a national security
interest for Tehran. Iran cannot afford to directly retaliate against
the United States, but it is widely expected to retaliate indirectly
through militant proxies.

Skillful Maneuvers

Iran's strategy involves more than just activating these proxy
groups. It entails the kind of skillful maneuvering it displayed as the
United States sought regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tehran
cooperated with Washington, and it benefited greatly from the downfall
of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein accordingly. The Iranian strategists
who helped devise those approaches are once again in power. Zarif, for
example, was Tehran's point of contact with the George W. Bush
administration in the early days after 9/11.

However, the Syria situation differs from those of Afghanistan and
Iraq. This time it is Washington's aversion to regime change that Tehran
is trying to exploit. In fact, the only real reason the United States
would want to replace al Assad is to curb Iran's regional influence,
which grew considerably after Saddam's ouster. But Washington does not
want to supplant al Assad only to see Damascus come under al Qaeda's
control. This partly explains why Hossein Mousavian, a close associate
of Rouhani, wrote an op-ed Aug. 29 that said regime change in Kabul is
"a blueprint for new collaboration" between Washington and Tehran.
Mousavian called for U.S.-Iranian cooperation to extend beyond Syria to
better manage the crisis-ridden region.


Syria and Iran

While the potential exists for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on Syria,
U.S. military action undoubtedly would weaken the country. This carries
serious risks for Iranian interests. An unfriendly Syria could cut
Tehran off from Hezbollah, its pre-eminent non-state Arab ally, and
jeopardize the position of its Iraqi allies.

However, limited airstrikes on Syria that do not undermine the al
Assad regime could actually work in Iran's favor. Such airstrikes could
divide the rebellion between factions that oppose military intervention
and those that favor it. Through their Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi
allies, the Iranians would then be able to better manage the rebellion,
which includes radical Islamist elements.

Because these elements have been gaining more territory, the United
States may need Iranian cooperation in forging a new Syrian polity. Washington is currently preparing to speak directly to Tehran over
the controversial Iranian nuclear program. The Iranian government has
already linked these two issues, and it believes it could use Syria to
its advantage as it negotiates the nuclear problem.

Welcoming Disruption

Iran cannot rule out the possibility that even limited U.S. action
will weaken the regime. Nor can it conclude that Washington does not
intend to conduct a more extensive, less symbolic air campaign against
al Assad. But it can, however, prepare for either outcome. Strategists
in Tehran know that the Americans have air superiority, but they know
Iran has the advantage on the ground in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran is thus positioned to foment an insurgency. (And the U.S.
invasion of Iraq enhanced Iran's experience in fomenting insurgencies.)
Any insurgency would worsen sectarian tensions in Syria and throughout
the region, in turn further radicalizing Sunni militias. Jihadists
gaining ground would force the United States to work with Tehran to
contain Sunni radicalism.

In the unlikely scenario that the United States becomes embroiled in
another major war, extricating itself from that war would necessarily
require Iran's cooperation. But what really gives Iran leverage is the
fact that since 9/11, jihadists and Islamist groups have had the
opportunity to gain power when Arab regimes collapse.

Unlike Syria's Arab neighbors, which want stability in the region,
Iran welcomes disruption. It is reasonably secure internally, and it
knows its spheres of influence may weaken but ultimately will not
dissolve. Strategists also believe that having lived under sanctions for
decades, Iran has grown accustomed to suffering. So while chaos in
Syria would threaten inherently weak Arab states, it would not affect
Iran quite as much. Tehran could then exploit Arab chaos to its
advantage.

In light of these risks, it is unlikely that the United States would
deliberately engage in a large-scale military intervention in Syria. But
Iran can never be too sure about U.S. intentions, and it has to account
for the unintended consequences of even minimal military action. It is
for this reason that Tehran has planned for multiple contingencies.

A lot can go wrong when plans are executed, especially when the
situation is as fluid as it is in Syria. For Iran, this fluidity offers
some risks, but it also offers some opportunities. The commonly held
belief that a post-al Assad Syria invariably would be bad for Iran is
not a guarantee.

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