The Syrian civil war has been a major headache for President Obama. Critics at home and abroad, like Saudi Arabia, where the president was on Friday, have urged the U.S. to do more.
But the U.S. isn't the only country that's faced difficult choices over Syria. Iran and Syria have been close allies for decades. And in Iran, discussions about Syria are surprisingly frank, complex and demonstrate growing divisions over how to handle a costly war that has no end in sight.
At Tehran University, students of international relations study the Syria-Iran alliance, one of the most enduring in the region. Yet there are now more questions about Iran's recent role in the Syrian bloodshed.
"What is happening in Syria, it's related to us; it is an obvious catastrophe," says one student in a discussion on campus. He didn't give his name because discussing Syria is sensitive.
Iran is reportedly spending billions to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saudi Arabia backs the rebels. The student believes Syrian civilians are paying the price. Innocent children are dying, he says, his voice rising. "But nothing is being declared as a solution," he says, "because of the balance of power."
Another student, Masa, 23, says she follows the news of the Syrian uprising on Iranian television. When it comes to insurgents, she says, "For me, I think they are just people, but Iran TV wants to show them as terrorists. Our media is not neutral."
Students Criticize Government Position
Iranian student activists launched a website and a Facebook page in Farsi and English last month to promote news from Syria for Iranians.
"The Iranian regime is supporting a dictator hated by most Syrians," reads the founding statement on the site, "and is wasting economic resources desperately needed by Iranians at home."
The regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now at the core of the Syrian conflict, says New York University academic Mohamad Bazzi, who is writing about the war. The Iranians have put money and manpower behind the Assad regime, he says.
"The Iranians are helping the regime survive day to day," he adds.
But Iran's investment has come with unexpected costs. The war has destabilized Iraq and Lebanon, where Tehran has allies and interests; and Tehran's image has been tarnished in the Arab world.
The latest chapter of the bitter regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia, a mostly Sunni Muslim country, and Iran, a largely Shiite Muslim country, is dangerous for the region, says Bazzi.
"I think the only way to get a settlement to the Syrian crisis is for both the Iranians and the Saudis to drop this winner-take-all mentality," he says.
A chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 raised the stakes, especially for the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a promise to improve ties with the West. The chemical attack came one month after Rouhani's decisive election.
Western diplomats and regional analysts say Iran played a strong "behind the scenes" role in resolving the immediate crisis. Tehran prodded Assad to give up his chemical arsenal, and sent advisers to help Syria comply with the U.S.-led disarmament plan.
Iranian specialists arrived to train Syrians in how to cooperate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international team in charge of monitoring and dismantling the arsenal.
The motivation for the move can be seen in the Peace Museum, in central Tehran, which documents Iran's trauma from chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
There were tens of thousands of victims, and even now, decades later, there are 70,000 registered survivors. Dr. Shahriar Khateri, a leading specialist on the long-term effects of chemical weapons, says Iran still suffers from the traumas of the war.
"We know how cruel chemical warfare is, because we are the only country which was heavily targeted with chemical weapons after the First World War," he says.
Iranians also know how long the trauma lasts. Officially, Iran blamed Syrian rebels rather than the Syrian military for the August attacks, but stopped short of openly defending the Assad regime. It was a notable omission, say diplomats in Tehran, but not a surprise for Khateri.
"Under any circumstances, by anyone, use of chemical warfare is inhuman and prohibited," he insists, even when international accusations focused on Iran's closest ally. "That's the red line," he adds. "We have a very clear position about that."
In Search Of An Endgame
Less clear is Iran's position on how to end the Syrian war.
Nasser Hadian, a professor of international relations at Tehran University, is trying to spur international discussion. He's an adviser at the Foreign Ministry for the new government.
Last month, he published a provocative article, "Reasons Iran Wants Peace in Syria." He proposed that Iran end its support for Assad.
"Iran has turned the corner on Syria," he wrote. "After three years of war, Tehran is increasingly concerned that Syria may not hold together if President Bashar Assad stays in power because of bitter passions that now divide political factions, religious sects, ethnic groups and territory."
"No way that he can rule Syria," says Hadian, referring to the Syrian president. Hadian insists this is a position with widespread support among Iranians, but, he says, "there are powerful groups who would think otherwise."
Western diplomats interviewed in Tehran say they have heard the same sentiment from officials in the Foreign Ministry. But Iranian hard-liners, especially those close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remain committed to Assad, convinced only he can stop the country from collapsing.
Iran has a crucial role in any solution in Syria, says Hadian. But Tehran is still divided on a way out of the crisis, and dampening the rivalry with the Saudis.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to look now at Iran's role in Syria's civil war. Iran is the Syrian government's biggest supporter. It's big regional rival, Saudi Arabia, backs the antigovernment rebels. The U.S. also backs the rebel opposition but has been divided over how much to get involved. NPR's Deborah Amos recently visited Tehran and found Iranians are also at odds over how to handle a war with no end in sight.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Syria is Iran's most important ally. Every student of international relations here at Tehran University knows about their enduring ties for decades. Yet you can also hear surprisingly frank questions about Iran's recent role in the Syrian bloodshed.
UNIDENTIIFED MAN: What's happening in Syria, it's related to us.
AMOS: It's related to Iran.
MAN: Of course it's related to Iran. What is happening is an obvious catastrophe.
AMOS: He doesn't give his name. Discussing Syria is sensitive. Iran is reportedly spending billions to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The student knows Syrian civilians are paying the price. Innocent children are killed every day, he says.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But nothing happens. Why? Because the hideous fact of the balance of power. Nothing is being declared as a solution.
AMOS: A view shared by many Middle East analysts. Mohamad Bazzi, a U.S.-based academic, says the Syrian war has become a regional power struggle.
MOHAMAD BAZZI: Iran has put its money, its resources, its manpower, its military behind the Assad regime. The Iranians are helping the regime survive day to day.
AMOS: But Iran's investment has come with unexpected costs. The war has destabilized Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran has allies. Tehran's popularity has plummeted in the Arab world. The rivalry with Saudi Arabia is dangerous for the region, says Bazzi.
BAZZI: I think the only way to get a settlement to the Syrian crisis is for both the Iranians and the Saudis to drop this winner-take-all mentality.
AMOS: A chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last August raised the stakes, especially for the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, elected on promises of better ties with the West. Iran surprisingly prodded Assad to give up his chemical arsenal say diplomats and regional analysts, even sent advisors to help Syria comply with the U.S.-led disarmament plan.
The motivation for that can be seen in a museum in the Iranian. It's the Peace Museum, where Iranians are reminded of their own trauma from chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Dr. Shahrier Khateri runs a program for survivors.
SHAHRIAR KHATERI: Because we are the only country which was heavily targeted by chemical weapons after the First World War, we know how cruel is chemical warfare.
AMOS: Officially, Iran blamed Syrian rebels rather than the Syrian military for the August attacks, but stopped short of defending the Assad regime. It was a notable omission, say diplomats in Tehran. For Dr. Khateri, it was no surprise.
KHATERI: Under any circumstances, by anyone, use of chemical warfare is inhuman, is prohibited.
AMOS: Iran is a ally of the Syrian government and yet, when it came to chemical weapons, that didn't matter.
KHATERI: That's the red line. We have a very clear position about that.
AMOS: Less clear, Iran's position on how to end the war. At a restaurant in Tehran, I meet an advisor to the Rouhani government.
NASSER HADIAN: My name is Nasser Hadian. I'm a professor of international relations at Tehran University.
AMOS: Despite the chemical weapon deal, international and regional rivalries still block progress to end the war.
HADIAN: To be frank with you, I'm not all that optimistic. But anyway, one has to hope that it can be resolved. We have to do our best.
AMOS: Last month, Hadian published a provocative article proposing Iran end support for Syria's Assad. He may win the war, but Assad is tearing Syria apart, he says.
HADIAN: No way that he can rule Syria. The point is how to convince him to leave power.
AMOS: Is that a popular opinion here?
HADIAN: If you go to the population, yes, it is. But as I said, there are powerful groups who would think otherwise.
AMOS: Iran must play a role in any solution for Syria, says Hadian, and regional analysts agree. But Tehran is still divided on a way out of the crisis. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.