The possibility that the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria will fall, together with the West's imminent intensification of the sanctions against Iran, have caused senior officials in Iran to issue threats, in two main categories:
- To attack Israel, U.S. interests in the region, and Arab allies of the U.S. in the region, if its nuclear facilities are attacked;
- To attack Israel, or spreading the Syria crisis to other countries, if the Assad regime is attacked.
This paper will review recent developments in advance of the nuclear talks in Moscow set for June 18-19, as well as Iranian threats of a regional conflagration (see Appendix).
The Crisis in the Resistance Axis Intensifies: Background
In recent weeks, both Tehran and Damascus are finding themselves in increasingly dire straits, in three main areas:
- Mounting Western pressure on Iran, in the nuclear negotiations: The Moscow nuclear talks, set to take place next week, are pushing Tehran into a corner. If it refuses to stop enriching uranium, the oil sanctions declared six months ago will be implemented, as will additional sanctions, as announced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This will significantly exacerbate Iran's economic and political situation.
- Possible fall of the Assad regime in Syria: Further deterioration in the Assad regime's situation, or its fall, will severely damage the resistance axis, will complicate Tehran's relationship with Hizbullah in Lebanon, and will undermine Tehran's geostrategic status (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 837, "Khamenei's Aim at the Nuclear Talks – Securing the Survival of His Regime," May 15, 2012, Khamenei's Aim at the Nuclear Talks – Securing the Survival of His Regime)
- Continuing drop in oil prices: The continuing drop in oil prices will further weaken Iran's and Syria's economic and political circumstances, and undermine their regimes' ability to survive.
These three cumulative elements place Iran in a situation similar to the one it faced in 2006, when the Iranian nuclear portfolio was about to be transferred from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the U.N. Security Council. At that time, Iran needed a provocation in the region that would produce a situation requiring the intervention of the Security Council – thus keeping its nuclear issue out of the spotlight, if only for a while. These provocations were the June 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on the Gaza border, by Islamic Jihad and with Hamas's cooperation, and the July 2006 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon border, by Hizbullah.
In the current crisis, Iran is again in need of a provocation against its rivals in the region, similar to or even more blatant than the aforementioned, to deter them from continuing to pressure it and to prevent harm to its regime and to the resistance axis, especially Syria.
Such an incident could come in the next few weeks, due to three factors: the implementation of energy sanctions against Iran, in July 2012; further weakening of the Assad regime; and further deterioration in the economic situation of both Iran and Syria.
Theoretically, Tehran can also choose the option of giving in to the West's demands. In 2003, according to U.S. reports, Tehran suspended its nuclear program out of fear of an American military response, in light of the fact that the U.S. military was then deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A previous Iranian capitulation was in 1988, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini signed a ceasefire agreement with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, under severe domestic pressure following the immense number of dead in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
In our assessment, Tehran will prefer the option of a conflagration in the region and beyond over the option of capitulating to the West. Not only do the circumstances of 1988 and 2003 not exist today, but today Tehran enjoys significant support from Moscow.
Moscow's Support Reinforces and Radicalizes Iran's and Syria's Positions
The conflict between Iran and the West, which has mounted in recent weeks, comes at a good time for Tehran, as it parallels the recent increase in tension between the U.S. and Russia. This enables Iran to position itself and its resistance-axis ally Syria as an asset for Russia against the U.S. This development of course also serves Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, is striving to upgrade his country's strategic status vis-à-vis the U.S.
Today, both Tehran and Damascus have the open and fervent support and active backing of Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's June 13 arrival in Tehran, for coordination and preparations in advance of the Moscow talks and vis-à-vis the crisis in Syria, eases Western pressure on Tehran.
Tehran reasons that Moscow's position, and primarily President Putin's firm stance in light of the developments in the region, now positions Iran advantageously in advance of the negotiations with the 5+1 at the Moscow talks. Furthermore, according to statements by senior Iranian officials, Tehran is demanding, as it did at the Baghdad talks on May 23, 2012, that the negotiations be conducted according to its own agenda, not with a sole focus on the West's demand that it stop enriching uranium to 20%. Also included in Iran's proposed agenda is a demand for Western nuclear cooperation, since Iran is a nuclear state, as well as a demand for discussion of the regional crises in Afghanistan, Syria, and Bahrain.
Iranian nuclear negotiations head Saeed Jalili warned the 5+1, in June 12 speech in the Majlis, that miscalculations on their part would derail the Moscow talks. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the Kayhan daily which is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned that Tehran would not hesitate to stop the talks with the 5+1 if it felt that the talks were not serving its interests.
The Syrian Regime Could Spread The Conflagration In The Region In Order To Maintain Its Rule
All the signs indicate that Assad plans to fight to the end, and that if his situation continues to deteriorate, he will further escalate his war against his opponents in Syria. Currently, he is sending helicopters, tanks, and artillery against the civilian population; he may move on to using his stockpiles of chemical weapons. An intimation of this has come from the Syrian regime, which has started to claim that the rebels in Syria have chemical weapons that were smuggled in from Libya, and that the rebels have been trained in their use in Turkey. Likewise, the Syrian regime is accusing the rebels of reporting that the regime has chemical weapons in order to justify their own future use of the smuggled chemical weapons against the Syrian regime.
Thus, the Syrian regime's claims should be seen as advance preparation and justification of the possibility of the use of nonconventional weapons by the regime against the rebels.
The use of nonconventional weapons against the rebels could lead the West to intervene militarily in the country, despite the West's clear reluctance to do so. The use of chemical weapons could ignite a regional conflagration, which the Syrian regime thinks could help it to survive.
Appendix: Iranian Sources Threaten To Attack Israel And To Spread The Syria Crisis To Other Places
Iran Warns: No Military Intervention In Syria Or We'll Attack Israel
- Iranian Majlis speaker Ali Larijani warned the West that a military attack on Syria "will burn Israel." He said, "Creating a Benghazi in Syria will spill over into Palestine, and the sparks from that fire will cover the Zionist regime." Larijani later warned, during a meeting with Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukharjee, that by attempting to force change in the region in their favor, the superpowers are playing with fire.
- The Iranian daily Kayhan threatened that Iran would react if the West attacks Syria, because, it said, it will consider it an attack on Iran, or the precursor of an attack on Iran. The paper added that the resistance organizations in the region would also defend Syria in the event of an attack, but at the same time assessed that such an attack was not possible.
- Iranian deputy chief of army staff Mas'oud Jazayeri said that anyone who invades Syria will not leave Syria unscathed, and that an attack on Syria would set the region ablaze. Jazayeri further threatened that an attack on Syria would be a red line for Iran, and that Iran would defend it vigorously. He added that Iran would "take steps against anyone who acts rashly against this red line [of Tehran]... The resistance's ill-wishers will be punished when the time comes."
- Former Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Mas'oud Adrisi assessed that the crisis in Syria will soon spread to Israel, after signs of it have emerged in Lebanon. He explained that Syria, Lebanon, and Israel are a single bloc and that instability in Syria therefore impacts Israel and Lebanon. He concluded that increased tension in Syria will cause a crisis in Israel.
- Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Khazaei warned against the persistence of the Syrian crisis, which he said could lead to the spread of instability to the entire region. Khazaei made the remark during a June 7 UN General Assembly meeting on Syria.
Iran Threatens to Attack Israel In Response To An Attack On Its Nuclear Facilities
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a speech marking the anniversary of the death of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that "if the Israelis take [a single] misstep [against Iran] it will fall on their heads like lightning." He added that the West was fear-mongering about a nuclear Iran in order to cover up its own problems, and that Israel's threats of a military attack on Iran were empty because Israel is more vulnerable than it was in the past.
- Khamenei's military advisor Gen. Rahim Yahyah Safavi said that were Iran to be attacked, it would respond with a missile attack on U.S. bases in the region, and on the 60 U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. He said that Iran would also attack Israel, all of which is within range of Iranian missiles, and would inflict upon them the same damage that they would cause Iran. In addition, he assessed that Hizbullah would attack Israel if Israel attacked Iran.
- Majlis member Hossein Naqavi Hosseini warned that a civil war in Syria would spread to its neighbors, particularly Israel. He said that the Syrians were enraged at the Zionist regime's involvement in the recent terror attacks in Syria, and that therefore "it will not take long until they undermine the security in the occupied territories."
* A. Savyon is director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.
 Political commentator Amir Mohebbiyan, who is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, assessed that the Moscow talks would be successful, because the international atmosphere is advancing towards a balance between Iran and the West, while China has not yet taken an anti-Iran position and Russia is making great efforts to play a more active role in the international arena. Qudsonline.ir (Iran), June 13, 2012.
 In his speech at the Majlis on June 12, 2012, Jalili said, referring to the May 2012 Baghdad talks, that "Iran believes that if seven countries [i.e. the 5+1 and Iran] intend to hold talks, they will not necessarily deal [only] with the [Iranian] nuclear issue, and other issues should be raised as well." He explained that Iran had raised the Bahrain issue, and the West had raised the issue of the war on drugs and Iran had not objected to discussing it. He said, "The focal point of the talks, according to the 5+1, was very specific and was predetermined, and Iran firmly objected [to discussing only its nuclear issue]. Because if talks were meant to be held and conclusions were meant to be drawn on only one single issue, then we have no need for talks at all." (Nasimonline.ir, Iran, June 13, 2012.) According to Jalili, the issue of Bahrain would come up again in the Moscow talks. (Mehr, Iran, June 13, 2012.) Hamid Reza 'Amadi, political editor of the Iranian Press TV news agency, said that the Iranian package of proposals to the 5+1 in the Moscow talks includes a demand for official recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium and for the removal of sanctions, as well as regional issues, including Syria, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and nuclear cooperation between Iran and the 5+1. (Fars, Iran, June 12, 2012). See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 839, "The Baghdad Talks – An Interim Report," May 24, 2012, The Baghdad Talks – An Interim Report.
 Mehr (Iran), July 13, 2012. Majlis National Security Council member Hashmatollah Falahat-Pisha said that the Moscow talks were aimed solely at determining the venue for the next round of Iran-5+1 talks. He added that the Moscow talks would fail if the 5+1 did not officially recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium and did not remove the sanctions as the first constructive measure on their part. (Fars, Iran , June 13, 2012.)
 Kayhan (Iran), June 7, 2012.
 Dampress.net (Iran), June 8, 2012; see also Fars (Iran), June 9, 2012, and Syrian and Syrian rebels' claims that the Assad regime has chemical weapons, Zaman-alwsl.net, June 7, 2012.
 Jamejamonline (Iran), May 30, 2012.
 Kayhan (Iran), June 8, 2012.
 Kayhan (Iran), June 12, 2012.
 Mashreq News (Iran), June 3, 2012.
 Fars (Iran), June 13, 2012.
 Mehr (Iran), June 11, 2012.
 Press TV (Iran), June 8, 2012.
 ISNA, Fars (Iran), June 3, 2012.
 Fars, IRNA (Iran), June 2, 2012.
 Press TV, (Iran), June 8, 2012.