Iran supports Assad (but not at any cost)

Talk to Iranian diplomats in Damascus and they will tell you that the late Syrian President Hafez Assad advised his son Bashar in his will that he could always rely on Iranians, but that he should never trust Arab leaders. True or not, Tehran’s current strong support for current Syrian President Bashar Assad is proof ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Talk to Iranian diplomats in Damascus and they will tell you that the late Syrian President Hafez Assad advised his son Bashar in his will that he could always rely on Iranians, but that he should never trust Arab leaders. True or not, Tehran's current strong support for current Syrian President Bashar Assad is proof of the unique nature of the Damascus-Tehran relationship. While the failure of the Arab League's roadmap to end the bloodshed in Syria and the army crackdown and gruesome sectarian violence in the city of Homs has exposed Syria to greater Arab and international pressures, Tehran is exploiting all of its regional cards to save its ally from outside intervention and the waves of the Arab Spring. Indeed, an alliance that has survived much tension in its bilateral relationship and relentless external pressure since the 1979 revolution in Iran is now again put to a difficult test in the wake of the Arab Spring. But this time, the Iranian-Syrian axis is facing a different kind of challenge; unlike the international and regional pressures of the past, this time the challenge is foremost coming from within Syria.

So far the Islamic Republic has stood beside the Syrian government. Iranian leaders proclaim that Syria is facing an international conspiracy and that President Bashar Assad is determined to carry out extensive reforms. Even the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the surprise of many observers, openly took a stance against the anti-regime demonstrations in Syria by singling them out as an American-Zionist conspiracy. This open support which has been accompanied by economic and military aid to the Syrian government reveals how concerned Tehran is with the fate of its most valuable regional alliance.

Talk to Iranian diplomats in Damascus and they will tell you that the late Syrian President Hafez Assad advised his son Bashar in his will that he could always rely on Iranians, but that he should never trust Arab leaders. True or not, Tehran’s current strong support for current Syrian President Bashar Assad is proof of the unique nature of the Damascus-Tehran relationship. While the failure of the Arab League’s roadmap to end the bloodshed in Syria and the army crackdown and gruesome sectarian violence in the city of Homs has exposed Syria to greater Arab and international pressures, Tehran is exploiting all of its regional cards to save its ally from outside intervention and the waves of the Arab Spring. Indeed, an alliance that has survived much tension in its bilateral relationship and relentless external pressure since the 1979 revolution in Iran is now again put to a difficult test in the wake of the Arab Spring. But this time, the Iranian-Syrian axis is facing a different kind of challenge; unlike the international and regional pressures of the past, this time the challenge is foremost coming from within Syria.

So far the Islamic Republic has stood beside the Syrian government. Iranian leaders proclaim that Syria is facing an international conspiracy and that President Bashar Assad is determined to carry out extensive reforms. Even the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the surprise of many observers, openly took a stance against the anti-regime demonstrations in Syria by singling them out as an American-Zionist conspiracy. This open support which has been accompanied by economic and military aid to the Syrian government reveals how concerned Tehran is with the fate of its most valuable regional alliance.

Inside Iran, however, the issue of the crackdown in Syria has turned out to be very divisive. As hardliners in the government have spared no effort to support Damascus and confront foreign pressure on Assad on all diplomatic and financial fronts, the reformist factions have been critical of the repression in Syria and Iran’s limitless backing of President Assad. Reformists believe that Iran should have taken a more balanced stance towards the situation in Syria by pressuring President Assad to pull the army back from streets and carry out meaningful reforms. Reformist diplomats, who were largely marginalized in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory in 2005, held his government responsible for the Iranian inability to influence Bashar Assad to end the suppression of protesters. Recently, the former deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Sadr, blamed Ahmadinejad’s government for failing to use Iran’s regional capacity to coordinate with Turkey and international bodies to reach a regional solution for Syria. According to Sadr, "if the current Iranian government had a better international status, it could have attracted the Syrian opposition to mediate and control the ongoing crisis in Syria."

Similar criticisms were made by Mohammad Shari’ati, the Arab affairs advisor to former President Mohammad Khatami. In the past months, he has published several articles on Syria in Diplomacy-e-irani, a website that reflects the view of reformist diplomats and experts on Iranian foreign policy. From the first days of the uprising in Dara’a, he lambasted the Syrian army’s heavy-handed approach to demonstrations. Shari’ati wrote in a piece that "the Islamic Republic must back the Syrian people and not a figure." He dismissed claims that Iran had dispatched forces to Syria to kill demonstrators, and blamed the Iranian political and media support for Assad for the rumors of Iranian involvement amongst Syrians. In the same vein, an Iranian MP who had visited Syria last August told Diplomacy-e-irani how concerned he was with anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite slogans in certain regions of Syria. He lamented that "in the past one hundred years there had never been an instance of setting our flag on fire in the region, but this has now happened in Syria." 

Indeed, there is a very tangible sense of empathy among many Iranians and reformists with the Arab Spring; Syria is no exception. For many, the crackdown in Syria is reminiscent of confrontations between protesters and security forces after the Iranian Presidential election of 2009. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic’s support for the Ba’ath regime has made the Syrian case a very controversial issue in the ongoing debate between the government and opposition about the roots of uprising in Syria. The Iranian government and state media claim that the turmoil in Syria is merely a foreign plot while many in the opposition emphasize the despotic nature of the Ba’ath regime and Syrians’ aspirations for civil rights. Some Iranian opposition activists even went so far as to claim that the fall of Bashar Assad would be an auspicious change for Iran, too, because it would ultimately embolden the Green Movement opposition and weaken the Islamic Republic.

Against this backdrop, there has been a change in Tehran’s official tone regarding the eight-month old uprising in Syria. Since August there have been tangible efforts by officials in Tehran to demonstrate to the outside world a balanced Iranian position towards developments in Syria. President Ahmadinejad’s remarks on Syria, in his interview last month with CNN, were a clear signal of this change in tone. Indeed, this was the second time in the past three months that the Iranian President condemned the use of violence by both the regime and anti-government forces and reiterated the Islamic Republic’s recognition of the Syrian opposition. He told CNN that Tehran will try "to encourage both the government of Syria and the other side" to "reach an understanding". Earlier, in an interview with Hezbollah’s al-Manar television in late August, Ahmadinejad had demanded that both the Syrian government and opposition negotiate and avoid violence. Similar statements have been expressed by the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who urged President Assad to bow to the demands of demonstrators, which he described as legitimate. In a more straightforward manner, an MP and member of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Majlis confessed that Iran’s "unconditional support for Syria is a mistake."  It does not seem that such statements reflect a seminal change in the Islamic Republic’s approach to its ally as, for instance, foreign minister Salehi recently reiterated that Tehran wants reforms to be carried out under Basher Assad. However, it is evident that there is growing frustration in Tehran over the on-going crackdown in Syria.

This frustration can be read in light of the threat that the bloodshed in Syria poses to the Islamic Republic’s strategic interests in the region. From the very first days of the anti-regime demonstrations in Tunisia, the Islamic Republic jubilantly supported the revolutions and uprisings in the Arab world. When it came to Egypt, it was very clear that, between the people and regime, Tehran was siding itself with the streets. In the days leading to the Egyptian revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei unleashed a rare attack on President Mubarak in his Friday prayer sermon and urged Egyptians to follow in the footsteps of the Iranian revolution and topple Mubarak, whom he called a "servant" of Israel.

But this "revolutionary position" proved to be evanescent as the waves of the Arab Spring hit Syria. The Islamic Republic’s anti-status quo stance turned into an anti-revolutionary one, as it continued to support the Syrian government. Tehran initially justified its position by putting emphasis on Bashar Assad’s popularity and his determination to carry out reforms. But the more the Syrian government unleashed violence against the protesters, the more the Iranian stance lost its credibility in Arab public opinion. This is a point of concern for the Islamic Republic which vies especially with the ruling AK Party in Turkey for influence in the Middle East and presenting a model for Arab revolutionaries.

On another level, the shadow of sectarian tensions in Syria fell across the regional standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which respectively position themselves as representing Shi’a and Sunni Islam. In the past months there have been reports of violence between Sunni extremists and Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ism, in Syria. Such conflicts have already added to the simmering tensions between the Sunna and Shi’a across the region from Bahrain to Lebanon. In a noticeable contrast to the silence of the Shi’a ulama, prominent Sunni clergy, such as the Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi and al-Azahr’s ulama, issued statements condemning the brutality used against the Syrian protesters. This symbolic division among religious leaders has brought to the fore the religious dimension of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Each power has openly declared its sympathy for opposite sides in the struggle. The Saudis are for the largely Sunni protestors and the Iranians are for the Alawite-dominated regime.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has meticulously tried to shed its image as a Shiite entity and to assume a Muslim universalist discourse. Iran has done this to maximize its position as champion of resistance for both Sunni and Shiite movements. In contrast, in the past 30 years, Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, sought to undermine Iran’s regional influence by highlighting its Shiiite and Persian character. Tehran’s backing for Assad and turning a blind eye on the brutality of the Syrian security forces contributes to this sectarian image which the Islamic Republic has sought to dispel. It also plays into the hands of Saudi propaganda, which strives to depict Iran’s regional ambitions as anti-Sunni. Tehran’s "unconditional support for Syria", as described by a member of the Iranian parliament, risks destroying its carefully laid plans to develop a universal discourse in the Arab and Islamic world. Support for the Assads is running up against its larger strategy of leading resistance in the region if Iran fails to distance itself from the policy of backing Bashar Assad at any cost.

Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and documentary film maker who writes on Iranian foreign and regional policy and on Arab affairs. He contributes to Diplomacy-e-Irani and other publications.

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