Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani told the Iranian Labor News Agency, "The people (Syrians) have been attacked with chemical weapons from their own government and now they must wait for an attack by foreigners." However, the news agency was forced to revise this quote removing blame from the Syrian government. "On the one had the people of Syria are the target of a chemical attack, and now they must wait for an attack by foreigners," the new quote read.
The Iranian Foreign ministry put out a statement denying that Rafsanjani had accused the Syrian government of using poison gas. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham accused the media of "distorting" Rafsanjani's words. Since making the comments, Rafsanjani has come under fierce attack from the hard-line Jahan newspaper. They wrote, "These are exactly a repeat of the lies from leaders of the White House and Tel-Aviv that not even the United Nations has confirmed." The article then warned him about differing from government policy on Syria. Rafsanjani has not responded directly to the criticisms, but his website did publish a short statement. "Expressing unofficial or extreme positions from unrelated individuals must be avoided. The position of the system must be expressed through official and responsible channels."
These comments will come as a surprise to some, as Iran has been a faithful ally of the Syrian regime during the last two and half years of civil war. What this demonstrates is that a sharp divide exists in Tehran over Syria; President Rouhani acknowledges that chemical weapons were used in Syria. But he stopped short of blaming anyone and he called on the UN to investigate. Despite this, Iran remains a principle supporter of the Assad regime; Iranian security forces have been training Syrian security forces since the conflict began. Iran has also pumped an estimated $1 billion into the Syrian economy, but Tehran has also expressed frustration with Damascus over the handling of the crisis.
General Qassem Suleimani, head of the elite Iranian special force unit the Quds Force, who acts as an advisor to the Syrian forces on behalf of Tehran complained, "We tell Assad to send the police to the streets and suddenly he dispatches the army." Another senior Quds commander told an Iranian media news outlet, "If the Islamic Republic were not present in Syria, many more of its people would have been killed." Other Iranian officials have also criticized Assad, they expressed dismay, when he failed to implement reforms and hold open elections in 2011. Iran maintains that armed conflict will not solve Syria's problems and that negotiations are the only way. In the past they have pressured Assad into including some of the opposition into the government, which he has so far refused to do.
But despite this criticism, Iran maintains its support for the Syrian regime at all costs. Publicly, they remain defiant and have condemned planned U.S. strikes on Syria. Some Iran commentators have suggested that because of sanctions and other problems, if the U.S. does strike Syria, the Iranians will back away from Damascus because they cannot afford to maintain the high-level of support. The chemical attack has humiliated the Iranian regime and Rafsanjani's word will ignite fresh debate over support for the belligerent Syrian regime. It remains to be seen what will happen next, but policymakers are watching the debate over Syria in the west with great anxiety.