Former Tehran Mayor and head of the Reformist Executives of Construction Party Gholam Hossein Karbaschi is under fire for doing what few of Iran's active or former politicians or even journalists do: criticize Iran’s approach to the seven-year Syrian civil war. During an April 29 speech in Esfahan province in support of President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election campaign, Karbaschi said, “We too want peace in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, for the oppressed to be defended and the Shiites to be supported. But this cannot be done by giving money, buying arms and killing.”
On May 2, Karbaschi was indicted for “insulting the martyrs of the defenders of the shrine.” Iranian soldiers who fight in Syria are referred to as “defenders of the shrine,” in reference to the Shrine of Zeinab in Damascus. Ahmad Khosravi Vafa, Esfahan’s chief justice, said that Karbaschi will soon be summoned to court.
Karbaschi said May 3 that he has not yet received a summons. He neither backed away from the comment nor defended it when asked about it by Iranian journalists. Rather, he said that his comments on the topic were about two minutes long, but only 28 seconds were shown by media outlets. The short video clip went viral on social media.
In the full text of the speech, Karbaschi presented an argument for diplomacy. “Let us use the power of diplomacy to resolve regional issues,” he said. “The power of diplomacy, with which six superpowers sat and resolved the biggest issue, which was the United Nations Security Council sanctions. “
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on the country’s foreign policy. Given the decadelong impasse on the nuclear file, Rouhani and his administration were given the authority to work out a comprehensive nuclear deal primarily between Iran and the United States, to which all members of the United Nations Security Council finally agreed and which reduced Iran’s nuclear capabilities in return for sanctions relief.
Karbaschi’s suggestion that the diplomacy approach be used is in stark contrasted to the one currently used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has sent military advisers and fighters to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Dozens of Iranian volunteers have died so far. Their funerals are public events and Khamenei has even visited the families of those killed in the war.
Karbaschi’s argument may have been a public endorsement of Rouhani’s attempt to negotiate with regional countries through diplomacy. But his criticism of the current approach was so direct that even Bahram Ghassemi, Rouhani's spokesman, distanced the administration from it. “You have to speak with terrorists through strength and power, not diplomacy,” Ghassemi said May 1.
Conservative media outlets and officials, which have been overwhelmingly in favor of Iran’s support for the Assad regime, were extremely critical of Karbaschi’s statement. Mansour Haghighatpour, a parliamentary adviser, said that if not for Iran’s presence in Syria, Karbaschi “would be hiding in a hole today.” Raja’s coverage of Karbaschi’s statements was headlined, “Karbaschi’s invite for the Islamic State to attack Iran.” Hassan Shamshadi, a correspondent for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting who often reports from Syria, wrote an open letter criticizing Karbaschi for the comments, calling Iranian soldiers “defenders of the shrine and defenders of national security and martyrs of the shrine.”