By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
In an unprecedented move, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has initiated a debate over the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria on Facebook. On August 30, Zarif posted some questions and thoughts, first in Persian and later in English, that prompted hundreds of reactions and comments from his more than 95,000 Facebook followers.
The issues Zarif raised reflect Iran's official stance regarding the current crisis, including its condemnation of chemical weapons and opposition to a military intervention against its main regional ally.
The United States is contemplating a limited, targeted military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in response to what it says is convincing evidence that the government carried out a chemical-weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus on August 21 that killed more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children.
Zarif writes that "Iran's unambiguous position" as a victim of chemical warfare is to condemn any use of chemical weapons, regardless of who uses them. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used sarin and mustard gas against Iranians.
Zarif asks whether the United States and other countries calling for action against the Assad regime over the suspected use of chemical weapons feel the same.
"But has it always been the position of those who are now talking about punishing their presumed culprit? How did they react when civilians in Iran and Iraq were victims of independently established massive and systematic use of advanced chemical weapons by their then-friend Saddam Hussein?" the U.S.-educated Zarif says.
He also asks whether a threat to use military force is the solution to the killings in Syria. The Iranian foreign minister repeats Iran's long-standing view that negotiations are the only solution to the more than 2-year-old crisis in Syria. Zarif argues that military action would violate international norms and the United Nations Charter.
Rare Public Debate
Zarif's airing of his views on Facebook has given Iranians a unique chance to discuss their thoughts about the situation in Syria, including Iran's support for Assad, which has come under criticism.
Citizens in Iran are rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to interact with their public officials. The debate that Zarif sparked on Facebook offered a rare glimpse into their diverse views on an international crisis that is likely to impact their country.
"Do you think it's fair for Iranians to be pressured because of [Tehran's] support for [Assad]? What do you get from Syria in return for all of your support?" one user asks.
"Please do whatever you can to prevent a war," writes another.
At least one person says he welcomes an attack on Syria, which he says could put an end to Assad's rule. "Assad is never going to give up power and reach a compromise with those opposed to him. He had a chance when the opposition forces were merely protesting in the streets. But he used force against them."
Some of those reacting to Zarif's post ask why Iran has been silent about the serious human rights violations committed by Syrian forces, while others question Iran's support for the Syrian regime.
Some also say that Iran's stance on Syria is hypocritical.
"War is wrong, it is also wrong for Iran to provide Syria with military aid," one user writes. "Any war should be condemned. But please, do not speak about humanitarian issues, as people's lives have no value in the Islamic republic. I will not forget those who were killed in the 1988 prison massacre, and the peaceful protesters who were killed in 2009."
A user who introduces herself as a supporter of Iranian President Hassan Rohani asks Zarif tough questions about some core foreign-policy issues.
"How long are our politicians going to be busy dealing with the issues of other countries while their own people are suffering? Until Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza make the main headlines of our news while a mother of this land is forced either to sell her kidney or body to make a living?"
Zarif is the only Iranian official who has publicly acknowledged being on Facebook, which is blocked in Iran.
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