This is the second part of the article. Click here to read the first part focusing on the Islamic Republic’s efforts to control the official narrative on Syria.
While the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a staunch supporter of Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in Syria, little attention has been paid on public attitudes within the country.
While Tehran has tried to maintain complete control over information regarding the war in Syria and the narrative about its military involvement, it has not fully succeeded. The “war on terror” and “axis of resistance” rhetoric have not been enough to mollify the Iranian public and its demand for accountability.
Despite the Iranian state media’s blackout on issues related to the Syrian war, Iranians’ propensity to consult a myriad of Persian-language media sources abroad has kept them well informed.
Rising societal awareness about Tehran’s Syria military intervention has undermined the regime’s monopoly of interpretation, and Iranian officials have increasingly had to face questions from the public about its moral and economic dimensions.
Recent protests and public encounters have shown that Iranians are increasingly unhappy about their country’s involvement in Syria. The war is having an aggravating effect on already growing political and socioeconomic grievances at home.
The first high-level official to publicly speak out against involvement in Syria was the late Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president and a mentor to current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
In August 2013 (days after the Ghouta chemical attack near Damascus), in what is believed to be the first speech by an Iranian official openly admitting Assad’s use of chemical weapons, he said: “The prisons are crammed full and there is no more room, so they have seized a few stadiums to fill them up, too. The Syrian people are experiencing harsh conditions. On the one hand, they are bombed with chemicals by their own government, and on the other hand, they can expect American bombs.”
It was not only hardliners that came after Rafsanjani for his comments; the Rouhani administration, too, criticised him.
In April 2017, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, popular former mayor of Tehran (1990-1998) and one of the leaders of the Executives of Construction Party, founded by Rafsanjani in 1996, also criticised Iran’s intervention in Syria. In a speech delivered in the city of Isfahan during an electoral campaign event in support of Rouhani’s candidacy for a second term, he said: “Yes, I also wish that in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, in all these places, peace is established, the oppressed protected and the Shia Muslims there strengthened. But can all these goals only be achieved through cash payments, delivery of arms, killings and beatings?”
Karbaschi argued that Iran should seek a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict instead of a military one. The audience welcomed his remarks with enthusiastic applause.
His speech drew the ire not only of IRGC-affiliated media, but also of the government. Two days later, a Rouhani administration spokesperson responded to Karbaschi’s criticism: “[When] we are dealing with blind terrorism and the lack of regard for people’s lives, then I believe force is the language to respond with to their cowardly acts.”
A few days later, the Isfahan Province’s justice department filed a lawsuit against him, claiming that his speech was a “criminal statement” and an “insult to the martyrs defending sacred sanctuaries”.
Following Karbaschi’s speech, ultra-conservative newspaper Kayhan wrote: “Karbaschi’s comments are a deja vu of the 2009 sedition (hardliners’ term for the Green Movement), when Iran’s foreign policy was blatantly questioned behind the smokescreen of the presidential elections and the perverted slogan ‘Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, I Give My Life for Iran!'”
It was that very slogan that was resurrected during the December-January rebellion which swept across the country. In fact, it was one of a number of slogans chanted in Iranian streets that explicitly expressed popular discontent with Iran’s regional policies. Another popular one was: “Leave Syria alone, deal with us!”
Many Iranians have come to draw a direct link between their particular domestic grievances and the war in Syria, believing that the money spent on the conflict (estimated at between $6bn and $20bn annually) should be instead spent on the population’s needs at home.
These sentiments have also been voiced on university campuses, despite ongoing repression against students.
In December 2016, during a Students’ Day event at Tehran’s Amirkabir University of Technology (AUT) with prominent Iranian conservative MP Ali Motahari, a student activist took the stage and challenged key moments of the Islamic Republic’s history, including its involvement in Syria. He declared amid applause:
“I fear the day when and I am certain that we will be condemned by history on why we have in the case of Syria stayed that silent, towards that heinous genocide that is taking place … Mr Motahari, with all that is happening in Syria, are we really standing in the front of righteousness? 500,000 people have been killed. These numbers easily pass our lips but generations in Syria have been burned. Syria has been ruined. Where are we standing in this game? … We are certainly convicted in front of the tears of Syrian children.”
“Hassan Abbasi, your ideology is the ideology of terrorism and fear, of sending weapons to the bloodthirsty dictator Bashar al-Assad, and of supporting him. Your ideology is to play with the nationalistic and religious beliefs of the people, defending non-existent shrines in Homs and Idlib. What shrines? … Your ideology places the budget of Iran in the bank account of Hezbollah in Lebanon. By Hasan Nasrallah’s own admission, their weapons, their daily livelihood, their food, and even their underwear are provided through the budget of the Iranian people. My final word is that we shall never forgive or forget your treachery and your crimes.”
Some uneasiness about the war in Syria seems to have also spread among some Iranian conscripts. While in the early years in the conflict, many volunteered to go to Syria and Iraq, there seems to be less enthusiasm today. One military conscript told a German weekly last year:
“I see what happens in Aleppo and Homs and Idlib, and am thinking to myself: Why all that? I know that this war is cruel and that we Iranians are very, very deeply involved … They will certainly send me abroad. I really don’t want to kill children in Syria but I think I have to do it. … Iranian martyr’s cult: fine and good, but if I do not know what I am dying and killing other people for, I find it hard to look forward to my duty.”
Iran’s Syria campaign seems to have put an end to the myth of the Islamic Republic being involved in conflicts only for self-defence. Much of the Iranian public seems to understand that the Assad regime, which Iran is defending, and ISIL are mutually reinforcing each other’s barbarity.
And now that victory over ISIL has been proclaimed and Iran’s military is still deployed in Syria, more questions will be asked. The “war on terror” rhetoric will not work that well as it did a few years ago.
The economic and human costs of Tehran’s Syria intervention are increasingly coming to the surface. Iran’s elite will have to carefully manoeuvre in light of increasing awareness about Syria and ongoing socioeconomic and political protests.
During the recent rebellion, billboards with apocalyptic scenes from Aleppo were put up, warning Iranians against joining the protests which “would turn” their country into another Syria. With the Islamic Republic’s image of a noble saviour of Syria crumbling, such fear tactics will not be enough to silence public grievances on domestic and regional issues alike.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated after publication to remove a sentence on protest chants in Isfahan and Kazeroun.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.