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Iran Weighs Heavily In Debate Over Syria


As we've heard, some of the debate over Syria is actually a debate about Syria's ally, Iran. We want to know what Iranian leaders are thinking as the United States contemplates involvement in Syria. And so we've called Scott Peterson, in Istanbul. He's a Christian Science Monitor reporter who's well-known for his coverage of Iran, and author of a book called "Let the Swords Encircle Me," which is about Iran.

Mr. Peterson, welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: I want to start by trying to understand what Iranian leaders are saying. Hasn't Iran's president actually spoken out against the use of chemical weapons in recent days?

PETERSON: Well, that's right. In fact, every senior Iranian official has spoken out about chemical weapons. And of course that stems from Iran's own history during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. Iran basically suffered tens of thousands of their casualties from chemical weapon attacks that were fired by Iraqi forces. So they have always, for decades, really been against the use of chemical weapons. And I think that's one of the reasons why now you see such a strong diplomatic push by the Iranians.

PETERSON: Not only are they trying to come up with some kind of a negotiated solution that would prevent U.S. air strikes, but I think that they're also quietly advising President Assad not to use chemical weapons again and probably even asking why he did so, which is just a gift for those who might want to strike Syria.

INSKEEP: Well, whatever they're asking in private, are they acknowledging in public not only that chemical weapons were used, but that Assad's side is responsible?

PETERSON: The official line is that it's unclear who used those chemical weapons, that it might not necessarily be the government, and some Iranian officials have stated flatly that they really feel that this was a setup by the rebel forces to basically draw the United States and other enemies of Iran into this conflict.

INSKEEP: So if the United States were to strike Syria, would Iran feel obliged in any way to respond to that?

PETERSON: Well, I think, first of all, it's going to depend on the scale of any American strike. If it's something that is very limited, as President Obama has suggested, then I think that the Iranians probably won't do an awful lot because they will feel that this isn't necessarily going to threaten the Assad regime or their own influence.

On the other hand, if these strikes are much stronger and appear aimed at undermining the Syrian regime in such a way that it basically means that it changes the balance of power on the ground, I think then that you will see an awful lot more rhetoric to start with, you know, talking about this will become the United States' second Vietnam, and you know, the kind of rhetoric that we've already heard.

But I think there will be a little bit more action on the ground also in terms of support for the Syrian government. They've already got advisors. There are intelligence resources there that the Iranians have. And you know, the Iranians will be in a much more difficult situation if that happens because for them Syria is an absolutely critical part of the axis of resistance, and they don't want to lose their influence there.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that. You mentioned the fear that the United States would get into another Vietnam. A lot of American officials, as you know, Scott Petersen, have feared that the U.S. would get bogged down in Syria, that any involvement would only get larger and longer and worse. Are Iranian officials worried that they're already bogged down in Syria? Because they're spending a lot more money and resources on Syria right now than the United States is and the war is not being won.

PETERSON: Well, that's right. I think that on the Iranian side, they are concerned about their own involvement - I mean, you know, which has gone on now for well over two years. And in one respect, as one analyst who has pointed out that basically if the United States intervenes in this way in Syria, that this will really become Obama's war as opposed to Iran's war and that they might be in favor of quietly divesting a little bit of their own high profile presence in Syria and in this conflict.

There are just so many things that people are trying to gain. When all is said and done, Iran is trying to maximize the amount of influence that it still has in Syria regardless of the result.

INSKEEP: Scott Petersen of The Christian Science Monitor, thanks very much.

PETERSON: Thank you.


This morning, the United Nations is reporting that there are now more than 6 million people who have been forced from their homes by the Syrian civil war. That includes 2 million who have flooded out of Syria into neighboring countries, about 10 times as many as there were a year ago. Syria has a population of about 23 million people.

INSKEEP: The United Nations says 5,000 people are leaving Syria every day. Some are flowing into Iraq, ethnic Kurds heading into Kurdish Northern Iraq. It used to be that Iraqi refugees flowed into Syria. Officials from neighboring countries - Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon - are supposed to meet tomorrow in Geneva to urge more international support for Syrian refugees.

We'll continue to cover this story on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.