Events in Syria have reportedly prompted key Iranian figures to express their opposition to Tehran’s ongoing involvement in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power.
Sources inside Iran claim that former president and opposition leader Hashemi Rafsanjani asked the commander of the Iranian al-Quds Brigades, Maj.-Gen.
Qassem Suleimani, to stop sending volunteers to fight in Syria, according to a report published on Sunday in the Iraqi daily Azzaman.
Rafsanjani asked Suleimani to stop the recruitment campaign using al-Quds Brigades’ offices in Tehran and other Iranian cities, the report stated, adding that people were using emotional pleas or offers of money to convince recruits to fight in Syria. The article also claimed that the reason behind the campaign is that Iran fears the consequences of a possible US attack against Syria.
The sources said that there was a trend inside Iran that opposed interference in Syria and economic aid to the regime, especially considering the fact that the country was suffering under economic sanctions.
The al-Quds force is an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which seeks to protect the regime.
In addition, the sources added that elements from the al-Quds Brigades and the Basij militia were roaming through the mosques and neighborhoods of Tehran and other cities in search of recruits to fight in Syria.
These efforts could increase if the US strikes Iran, said the sources, who claimed that thousands of Iranians had responded to the call.
The recruits are being trained under the supervision of the al-Quds Brigades before being sent to Syria via Iraq.
Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the IDC in Herzliya, told The Jerusalem Post that there were divisions among the top leadership in Iran with moderates led by Hassan Rouhani and Rafsanjani, who want to improve relations with the Saudis.
A change in direction is difficult to fathom if Khameini continues with his current policies on Syria, said Javedanfar.
“If the US does attack Syria, that means Assad is going to need a lot more money and weapons. And that eventually could tip the argument in favor of those in the Iranian leadership who want to distance themselves from Assad,” he said.
The Post also interviewed Nooshabeh Amiri, a journalist based in Paris who left Iran in 2005 after being persecuted by the government.
She and her husband, Houshang Asadi, spent time in and out of prisons, surviving torture and the loss of their home.
An editor for the Iranian website Rooz, which is staffed mostly by exiled Iranian journalists and published in France, Amiri said there was a big difference between the Iranian people and those in the government.
“The people want peace and the extremists in power do not,” she said, adding that there were politicians who believe that there should be more internal discussion about the country’s involvement in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday denied comments attributed to Rafsanjani that accused the Syrian government of using poison gas in the country’s civil war, saying the remarks had been “distorted.”
On Sunday, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) quoted Rafsanjani as saying Syrian authorities had fired chemical weapons at their own people. Hours later, ILNA replaced the report with one that did not attribute blame for the attack.
“The statements of the chair of the Expediency Council [Rafsanjani] were distorted and have been denied by his office,” said Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, according to the ISNA news agency.
ILNA initially quoted Rafsanjani as saying, “The people have been the target of a chemical attack by their own government and now they must also wait for an attack by foreigners.”
In its subsequent report, he was quoted as saying, “On the one hand, the people of Syria are the target of a chemical attack, and now they must wait for an attack by foreigners.”
A recording of Rafsanjani saying the original reported comments was posted online on September 2. MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) provides a recording of him saying: "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."
He also says that Iran is suffering from "real problems" and that the country is "besieged" by sanctions and a boycott.A greater danger may come, he says, if Syria is attacked.
Amiri mentioned that Rafsanjani’s office had released a one-sentence statement published on his website seeking to clarify the controversy: “Neither chemical bombardment nor putting the people of Syria in danger has any political or humanistic justification.”
The statement is general in nature and does not confirm or deny the content of Rafsanjani’s original statement.
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Reuters contributed to this report.