Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW, speaks with Naame Shaam
It is no secret that Bashar al-Assad wouldn’t have survived till now had it not been for Iran’s financial and military support. Hezbollah’s primary mission now is to help Iran control Syria and guarantee access to Lebanon. For Tehran’s mullahs, negotiations with the West over the nuclear issue are directly linked to Iran’s regional dominance, which Tehran is hoping to acquire as a compromise, beginning with guaranteed dominance over Syria and Lebanon.
However, Iran’s involvement in Syria has been causing fears among some Iranian opposition groups. Despite personal safety threats and the many challenges they needed to overcome to protect their identities, a group of Iranian activists, based inside Iran, launched a website and Facebook page called Naame Shaam, in both Persian and English, to raise awareness about the repercussions of Iran’s involvement in Syria. The primary goal of Naame Shaam – which means “Letters from Syria” in Persian – is for Iranian people to realize that this war has a direct impact on every Iranian life, politically and economically. Public funds are being spent on a war of aggression and economic resources desperately needed by Iranians at home are being wasted in Syria. Moreover, because of the news blackout inside Iran, very few people are aware of what is going on in Syria. Therefore, the group hopes to bring to the Iranian people news from Syria on the role of both Iran and Hezbollah.
The following is an interview with the organizers of Naame Shaam about their work, views and plans:
NOW: Tell me about you, your website, its background and mission.
Naame Shaam: The website www.naameshaam.org is the big sister of our Facebook page Naame Shaam. The website is there to guarantee that no story or analysis is lost in case Facebook closes our page. We want users to be able to find in the website articles about issue[s] related to the role of the Iranian regime in Syria – in Farsi and English. The website is also an archive of the work of our group. It is our memory. No Iranian should later be able to say, we could not know what the Iranian regime is doing in Syria.
NOW: Why did you decide to focus on Syria? And why now?
Naame Shaam: The idea of the project developed following Friday protests in Syria on 8 November 2013. Like every Friday since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, anti-regime protests were held all over Syria. The name given by protesters to this particular Friday was “The Friday of No to the Iranian Occupation of Syria.”
We were watching the pictures and videos of the protests in Syria, and it struck us that we, as Iranians, know so little about what is actually happening in Syria. Most of our information comes from biased, state-controlled media. There is also very little concrete and reliable information about Iran’s role in Syria. How much public money is the Islamic republic wasting on arming Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its war against the Syrian people? How many Iranians from Sepah Pasdaran are fighting in Syria alongside regime forces, or are Iranians really just acting there as ‘advisers,’ as the regime claims? What is the extent of the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria?
We just could not take the lies spread by official Iranian media anymore.
NOW: Where in Iran are you based? Aren’t you worried about your own security?
Naaame Sham: We are in Iran, let us say in Tehran. We are very careful and take all possible measures to remain anonymous. We have learnt from past experience with the regime that this time we cannot be fully open and transparent. The regime would just annihilate us.
We are aware that this is a problem when it comes to linking with other groups of activists in Iran and abroad, or when giving interviews. But we have no choice. In the current phase of our pro-democracy work in Iran we will work alone, that means no coordination with others and no alliances, and we give no Skype or telephone interviews. We only give interviews via email. We are a closed group of a few people with supporters in Europe.
Apologies that I cannot give more info. Hopefully one day we will be able to go public.
NOW: How do you monitor the news on Syria and Hezbollah, especially with limited access to news from Iran?
Naame Shaam: Some in our group read and speak Arabic; others like me are responsible for English-language media. We monitor the propaganda of the Syrian regime and compare it with the one of Iranian officials. Then we debunk and analyze. We also have a number of contacts in Syria, Lebanon and Europe.
We would not worry about access online. There are many ways to safely bypass electronic censorship. And we are not the only ones in Iran able to do so.
NOW: In general, how do you think the Iranian people view the Syrian revolution? How divided are they generationally, geographically and politically?
Naame Shaam: Some supporters of the Iranian regime know what is going on; others want to believe the lies of the government and close their eyes and ears. Opposition activists know a bit. And the majority of the people do not know. That is why we set up Naame Shaam to inform them all.
We do not have exact numbers as we have no reliable statistics at hand; to our knowledge there are no opinion polls on this.
All what we as Naame Shaam know is that most Iranians are busy surviving and do not care much about Syria and the rest of the world – for the time being. The economic situation is deteriorating slowly but surely, many people are poor and many more are worried they will become poor.
Syria is for most Iranians too far away. The extent of the involvement of Sepah Pasdaran there, and what it means to normal Iranians, is in general unknown. We want to make that link and highlight the economic and political impact of this war on our lives.
NOW: How do Iranians view Hezbollah and Iran’s support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, politically and financially?
Naame Shaam: We observe that many Iranians are just tired of the regime’s systematic approach of wanting to export the ‘Islamic revolution’ to Arab states. Many Iranians know it is costing a lot that Sepah Pasdaran politically misuses Shiites in Arab states, in some cases successfully like in Iraq and Lebanon. Many also know that the sanctions against Iran are not only because of the military nuclear program of Sepah Pasdaran but also because of their destabilization policies in the region. Our regime is making too many enemies, and many Iranians are aware they are paying the price.
Remember the 2009 protests in Iran when many in the opposition Green Movement raised that issue here and there. But the regime supporters are fully behind Hezbollah.
We at Naame Shaam know that thousands of Hezbollah-Lebanon and Iraqi Shia fighters are supporting the Assad regime on the ground. And we know that hundreds if not thousands of Sepah Pasdaran members are also in Syria – some fighting, some ‘advising.’ We also know that the Iranian regime is funding with Iranian public money (which we badly need) the economy in the regime-held areas, Russian-made arms for the Assad regime and all military activities of the Hezbollah-Lebanon and Iraqi Shiite fighters in Syria.
This is a huge operation that must cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions of dollars, every month.
Note that the Islamic Republic is financing a regime and a war in Syria while suffering from economic sanctions and while experiencing inflation as well as a devaluation of the national currency (because they print and print and print money). Add to this incompetence in managing the economy, widespread corruption and the Sepah Pasdaran controlling more and more economic sectors in Iran.
The Islamic Republic is bleeding in Syria, which is turning into a Vietnam for Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah.
NOW: How is Iran’s involvement in Syria affecting Iran’s politics and economy?
Naame Shaam: Let me answer this question indirectly.
We are against the Iranian regime’s support of the Assad dictatorship because Bashar al-Assad is killing Syrians just to keep his family in power, and to keep arms flowing to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is a shame that Sepah Pasdaran and their fighters in Syria, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites, are de facto supporting the oppression of the Syrian people and the destruction of Syria.
Sepah Pasdaran set up Hezbollah-Lebanon in 1983 to have its army along Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah is Sepah Pasdaran. Hezbollah is Iran in Lebanon. This was a strategic move to threaten Israel and the West: Anyone who bombs Iran’s nuclear facilities will provoke Hezbollah missiles landing on Tel Aviv and terror attacks in the West.
Basically, Sepah Pasdaran is waging a war it will lose in Syria just to be able to build the nuclear bomb. The bomb is supposed to secure the Iranian regime’s survival.
Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah are now fighting in Syria in order to be able to continue shipping arms via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Assad falls then the Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah stop, Hezbollah is no longer such a threatening deterrence and the Iranian regime will feel more threatened. The Iranian army in Lebanon (Hezbollah) must remain a frightening deterrent force at whatever cost. So Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites as well as Syrians are dying so that Sepah Pasdaran can have the bomb one day.
Sadly, Sepah Pasdaran will fight until the last Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite to keep its mighty deterrent force alongside Israel’s northern border. Setting up Hezbollah was never about liberating South Lebanon or Palestine. The Iranian involvement in Lebanon is about deterrence and creating the best possible situation to be able one day to build the Iranian atomic bombs to guarantee the regime’s survival.
NOW: For the Shiites of Lebanon, those who support Hezbollah’s battle in Syria believe it is the sacred battle for the appearance of Imam Al Mahdi. Is this narrative common in Iran?
Naame Shaam: No, this is not a common narrative in Iran. But the war in Syria is in propaganda terms of the Sepah Pasdaran and their supporters the battle for the appearance of Imam Mahdi.
Allow me to note that the Mahdi will definitely not show up to save Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah because they are helping Assad massacre Syrians. The injustice being done is just too much.
As Imam Ali said: “He who offers consent to the action of some people is as though he joins them in that action. And every one who joins in wrong commits two sins: one for committing the wrong and the other for giving consent to it.”
In other words: Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah leaders are lying to Lebanese Shiites when sending them to die in Syria.
NOW: What do you think would happen in Iran internally if Assad falls? That is, if Iran fails to protect him?
Naame Shaam: The Iranian regime will not allow this to happen without a big fight and lots of blood. Remember, it is all about keeping Hezbollah as a deterrent force along the border with Israel and about Sepah Pasdaran being able one day to build the atomic bomb.
We at Naame Shaam are very worried about the consequences of Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah bleeding in Syria. They are in a trap. If the trap gets messier they will pump more money, more arms and more fighters into Syria. In parallel the Iranian economy is in bad shape and people are getting poorer. All indicators [point] in the direction of an economic implosion in Iran and a military defeat in Syria.
No occupying force has ever been able to crush the will of people seeking freedom and dignity.
NOW: What does Iran want from Syria today? What is its plan in the region, considering the increased sectarian rhetoric?
Naame Shaam: As we said before, the Iranian regime (not the people) wants Assad to remain in power in order to secure Hezbollah as its army in Lebanon. And it supports destabilizing activities in states in the region to project power and frighten Gulf states and Western nations [into accepting] Sepah Pasdaran building the atomic bomb.
NOW: What are your future plans? Are you working with other groups? Are you going to translate this into more on-the-ground activism?
Naame Shaam: We started working alone and did not coordinate with any other groups for security reasons. But since mid-April we are in contact with a group of fellow Iranians that run the Facebook page Iran.Syria. They accept that we remain anonymous for the time being. (See their promotion of our page here.)
In the meantime, we have translated our work into on-the-ground activism, linking our demand that Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias pull out of Syria with our core demand for a free and democratic Iran.
On April 8 three of our activist friends in Berlin held a demonstration against the Iranian regime’s involvement in Syria. They held banners in several languages which read, “Syria is the Vietnam of Iran – Pasdaran and Hezbollah out of Syria now!” The peaceful protest took place outside a hotel in Berlin where Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, the Iranian Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade, along with other Iranian officials, were attending a conference with German business representatives.
In the future we will carry out similar protests to put the spotlight on the Iranian regime’s shameful support of Assad. Iranians will realize that Syria has become Iran’s Vietnam, and that we are bleeding there.
The narrative in the West is still that Assad is being supported by Hezbollah. But the reality is that the Syrian regime would not survive 24 hours without Iran’s military and economic support. Billions of Iranian Tomans, from the Iranian public purse, are being wasted on a senseless war to keep Assad in power, while ordinary Iranians are suffering economic hardship.
We also want to embarrass Western politicians and business people. They must realize that by dealing with the Islamic Republic, a regime with such a dark human rights record, they are indirectly supporting the murderous Syrian regime. How can Germany and other Western countries turn a blind eye to the Iranian involvement in Syria while criticizing Russia’s policies in the Ukraine? How come that, when it comes to Iran, expanding business relations are not linked to regional stability, to democratic reforms and to protecting human rights in Iran?
NOW: How do you describe the state of activism/opposition in Iran? How promising is it? And who is still trying?
Naame Shaam: We do not comment on other groups or mention any, for security reasons. Thanks for your understanding.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr