Iran Warns Against U.S. Military Strikes On Syria

The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard says an American military strike on Syria would lead to "a second Vietnam for the U.S." and the "imminent destruction of Israel." David Greene talks to analyst Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment, about Iran's role in the Syria crisis.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, with some headlines on Syria from this morning's European papers. In Britain, where the parliament voted against missile strikes on Syria against the wishes of the prime minister, David Cameron, the Daily Telegraph says "No to War Blow to Cameron." And the Daily Mirror: "We Don't Want Your War." In France, where the president says his country could take action, even without the British, the Le Monde newspaper headline reads: "Lively Debate on Syrian Intervention."

GREENE: Now, all this talk of war has prompted some ominous responses from one of the Syrian regime's main backers: Iran. The commander of Iran's Revolution Guard says an American military strike on Syria would lead to a second Vietnam for the United States and the imminent destruction of Israel. For insight into how Tehran might react to an attack against its ally in Damascus, we called Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome, Karim.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So, how seriously should the United States worry about some kind of retaliation from Iran, or maybe from Hezbollah militants who are supported by Iran?

SADJADPOUR: Well, it's always unpredictable how wars unfold, but I would say, at the moment, Iran is spread extremely thin in Syria. Syria is obviously one of their closest global allies. They've spent a billion dollars over the last two years to maintain Assad's power. And, you know, if they were to open up another warfront against Israel - whether that's Iran directly, which is very unlikely, or via Hezbollah - that's going to spread them even thinner.

GREENE: So, Israelis, I mean, some of them are certainly worried and stocking up on gas masks. But you're saying perhaps there's not so much to worry about. Well, of course, everything is unpredictable, as you said.

SADJADPOUR: Well, the way Iran and Hezbollah oftentimes operate isn't to attack when the adversary most expects it. They take their time, and they oftentimes don't attack directly against Israel. They may attack Israeli targets throughout the world. And oftentimes, those are soft targets, meaning Israeli civilians. This is what happened in Bulgaria several months back, when a bus of Israeli tourists was attacked by Hezbollah operatives.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you about the ties between Iran and the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. How close is that relationship between Iran and the Syrian regime?

SADJADPOUR: You know, David, this isn't an organic alliance between two nation-states. I would say it was a tactical-cum-strategic partnership between two authoritarian regimes. The mutual contempt for Saddam Hussein's Iraq brought them together in the early 1980s, and what has helped to sustain their alliance is this kind of mutual fear and loathing of America and Israel.

But I would argue that their alliance isn't based on their religious values. It's really based on their ideological worldview. In some ways, this is a misperception about Iran, that it only supports Shiites, when in reality, Iran is prepared to work with all different types of actors - be it Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Sunni Hamas or Sunni Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories - if they show this common enmity and opposition to America and Israel.

And for that reason, the Assad regime has been such a close ally of Iran. And the other reason is the Assad regime in Syria provides Iran a critical thoroughfare to support Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, really, Hezbollah has been the crown jewel of the Iranian revolution.

GREENE: Iran has a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who's been described as something of a reformer, someone who could potentially talk more with the West. And I guess I wonder, you know, if there is some kind of U.S. military attack in Syria, what does that mean for the prospects of curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions?

SADJADPOUR: I think for both Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani in Iran, the Syria conflict is one which they are not eager to fight. And I think both Obama and Rouhani would love to be able to see some type of a nuclear accommodation. But I think that the Syria conflict is making that nuclear accommodation much less likely.

GREENE: Thanks so much for talking to us.

SADJADPOUR: Any time, David. Thank you.

GREENE: Karim Sadjadpour. He's a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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