Iran banks all on Assad's survival
By Mahan Abedin
The continuing unrest in Syria presents Iran with multiple challenges
straddling the strategic, political and ideological spheres. While officially
Iran is committed to the survival of the Syrian regime, the perceived gravity
of the situation has led an increasing number of former Iranian diplomats and
academics to voice concern over the Islamic Republic's failure to hedge its
bets in Syria.
The fear - expressed in its most extreme form - is that the downfall of
President Bashar al-Assad may lead to the collapse of the Iranian-Syrian
strategic alliance, thus undermining the "resistance axis" in the region.
While these fears are exaggerated, nonetheless there is a widespread feeling in
the country that the lack of nuance in Iran's
position - and specifically the absence of any contact with Syrian opposition
groups - is not configured to protect Iran's interests in what is by all
accounts a highly significant political and strategic moment in the region.
Nevertheless, the Iranian government is confident that the Syrian regime can
weather the storm, and that the situation is being deliberately exaggerated by
Western media and intelligence services, who hope to extract strategic
concessions from Assad further down the road.
Iran is also concerned by regional reactions to the crisis, especially by the
pro-active Turkish position, which from an Iranian point of view is exploiting
a putative humanitarian crisis to expand Turkish influence in the region. The
real fear is not so much centered on Turkish influence (which is viewed as
relatively benign) but that Turkey is working at the behest of Washington and
key European states to re-align Syria away from Iran.
The strategic alliance
The Iranian-Syrian strategic alliance is the oldest, strongest and most
resilient in the modern Middle East. Its origins date back to the early 1980s
at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, when Syria was the only Arab state to
openly side with the Islamic Republic. The alliance was cemented by the
emergence of the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which Iran and Syria jointly
sponsored, albeit for different reasons.
To the Iranians, Hezbollah represents foremost an ideological investment and a
thorn in the eyes of Israel, whereas the Syrians look upon Hezbollah foremost
as a reliable asset and leverage in the Lebanese political scene.
Most analysts describe the Iranian-Syrian alliance as one centered on strategic
opportunity and needs, pointing towards Syria's decades-old rivalry with Iraq
and the two countries' enthusiasm to exploit Lebanon's perennially unstable
politics for strategic gain against Israel.
This characterization is accurate but it fails to take stock of the less
opportunistic - indeed less strategic - elements of the alliance. Ideology is
one important component of the alliance. Iran may be an Islamic state and Syria
an avowedly secular one committed to the ideals of Ba'athist pan-Arabism (which
some in Iran perceive as politically distasteful), but the two countries are
united by the Arab world's and to a lesser extent Turkey's distaste for Shi'ite
The dominant Alawite sect in Syria (who make up 12% of the population) -
alongside the Alevis of Turkey (who comprise 20% of the population) - belong to
a folk tradition of Shi'ism that is markedly different to the scholastic
religion of the Twelver Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq and Iran.
Orthodox Sunnis on the whole regard Twelver Shi'ism as a legitimate (albeit
eccentric) form of Islam, but they are universally adamant that the Alawites
and Alevis, owing to their esoteric beliefs and their estrangement from the
devotional aspects of the Islamic faith, fall well outside the religious
boundaries of Islam. Many devout Twelver Shi'ites share this perception and
regard the Alawites and the Alevis as essentially non-Muslim.
However, owing to political considerations the late Imam Musa Sadr (the
Lebanese cleric who mobilized Lebanon's downtrodden Shi'ite community in the
1970s) allegedly issued a fatwa, declaring the Alawites to be an
intrinsic part of the diverse global Islamic family.
This political position was seized on with great enthusiasm by the rulers of
the newly-founded Islamic Republic of Iran who were anxious to cultivate a
reliable ideological ally in the face of region-wide Sunni Arab hostility.
Consequently, there is a widespread perception in official Iranian circles that
the Syrian regime is politically Shi'ite, even though in stark contrast to
their Iranian counterparts, Syrian officials have no time for Islamic rituals
All things considered, the alliance with Syria is a critical component of
Iran's regional foreign policy. It is partly through Syria that Iran has
developed Hezbollah into a regional strategic force and brought the Islamic
republic and its potent political culture right on Israel's door steps.
Moreover, less dramatically, Syria's relative estrangement from the Arab world
facilitates Iranian political and ideological penetration of the Arab street
and helps to contain and offset hostile Saudi maneuvering.
An Islamic awakening?
It is precisely because of Syria's critical importance to regional Iranian
policy that in recent weeks more and more former Iranian officials and
academics have begun to speak out against the lack of complexity and nuance in
Iran's policy vis-a-vis the perceived deteriorating situation inside Syria.
The site for the expression of this dissent is Iranian
Diplomacy, an extremely well-networked and well-informed analytical
website that is ostensibly run by foreign policy "experts". In reality it is
managed by a network of former and retiring diplomats and their friends in the
universities who appear to be politically aligned to the reformist factions in
the Islamic Republic. Although firmly anchored in the official Iranian world
view, Iranian Diplomacy nonetheless offers serious and at times scathing
criticism of official policy.
Regarding the disturbances in Syria, Iranian Diplomacy dissented from the
official line early on by highlighting the use of excessive force by Syrian
security forces and by drawing attention to some of the legitimate demands of
the Syrian opposition. Writing for the website, Tehran University Professor Ali
Bigdeli delivered a scathing critique of official policy by drawing a
comparison to Turkey's "smarter" approach towards the putative political crisis
in Syria. According to Bigdeli, the unrest in Syria has emboldened Turkey to
escalate its involvement in Arab affairs with a view to assuming leadership of
the Arab world.
The putative political crisis in Syria has enabled academics like Bigdeli, who
write from a nationalistic point of view, to question the very existence of the
deep alliance between Iran and Syria. These academics draw attention to the
Syrian regime's Arab nationalist ideology, and by extension Syria's strong
support for Arab causes, including Arab countries' territorial claims on Iran.
For example, Syria supports the United Arab Emirates' territorial claims on the
Iranian islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb in the Persian Gulf, an
ideological position which sits uneasily next to Syria's alliance with the
Writing for the same website, former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad
Edrissi, alludes to Assad's growing problems but discounts the likelihood of
the Iranian-Syrian alliance collapsing, even in the event of regime change in
According to Edrissi, owing to Syria's profound enmity with Israel, the former
will have to rely on ''resistance'' groups (and by extension Iran) in order to
offset Israeli pressure. Edrissi also claims that Lebanese Hezbollah is
revising its attitude towards the situation in Syria by requesting Assad to
treat the issue of political reform more seriously.
Edrissi's comments may be viewed as a reflection of the views of certain senior
Iranian officials who want the Islamic Republic to publicly urge Assad to go
down the route of political reform and reconciliation with his less vociferous
It is fair to say that a growing number of Iranian officials are concerned that
Iran's unequivocal support for Assad and the ruling clique in Damascus is
tarnishing the Islamic Republic's image in the Arab world. Indeed, Iran risks
coming across as hypocritical and a practitioner of double standards (precisely
the same charge that the Islamic Republic levels at its Western opponents) by
praising the revolutionary movements in countries like Egypt, Yemen and
Bahrain, while adopting a markedly different view on Syria.
The Islamic Republic has characterized the region-wide protests that began in
Tunisia in December 2010 and which have since convulsed much of the Middle East
and North Africa as an "Islamic Awakening" but have pointedly omitted Syria
from this putative region-wide Islamic revolutionary movement. It appears that
there is a growing recognition in ruling circles in Tehran that this posture is
unsustainable, particularly if internal and external pressure continues to
mount against Assad.
But to what extent has Iran practically committed itself to the survival of the
Syrian regime? According to the United States government, the Islamic Republic
has provided material support to Syrian security and intelligence forces and
actively aided the suppression of the protests in Syrian cities. But talking to
Asia Times Online, Iranian intelligence sources flatly deny these allegations
and dismiss them as part of Washington's psychological warfare against the
Indeed, talking to Iranian officials it appears that there is deep unease about
the methods employed by the Syrian security forces which have allegedly killed
up to 2,000 people since protests and violence erupted in March. In private,
Iranian officials draw a comparison to how professionally Iranian security
forces responded to widespread rioting and disorder in the wake of the disputed
presidential elections of June 2009.
They claim (with some justification) that the disorder was quelled with minimum
loss of life.
Talking to Asia Times Online, Iranian intelligence sources deny that Iran has
"exported" riot control or any other security-related expertise which could be
used against the Syrian people. These sources refer to the profound differences
in political culture and a lack of political will in Tehran to interfere
directly in Syrian affairs. But Iranian intelligence sources admit that they
have lent support to their Syrian counterparts in the field of psychological
warfare and information management.
Talking exclusively to Asia Times Online, Iranian intelligence sources claim
that they have provided "material" and "decisive" support to their Syrian
counterparts on ways to defeat the intelligence-gathering and propaganda
operations of Western intelligence services. They claim that Western
intelligence, in particular American, French, British and German services, are
co-ordinating extensive intelligence-gathering and psychological warfare
operations against Syria, from the Lebanese capital Beirut.
A post-Ba'athist order?
Despite growing realization in Tehran that the country's rhetorical posture
towards the events in Syria is unsustainable, by the same token there is
widespread confidence that Assad will weather this storm, albeit by emerging
weaker in the long term.
The Iranians provide a multitude of reasons why Syria will survive, the most
immediate of which are the resilience of the Syrian regime (and the ferocity of
its security establishment) and the divided nature of the Syrian opposition,
the majority of whom hail from a Sunni Islamist pedigree. But deep down Iranian
officials believe that Assad will survive because owing to his foreign policy
posture and his impeccable anti-Zionist credentials, his regime is somehow more
''connected'' to the deepest aspirations of his people, indeed the people of
the region as a whole.
This essentially ideological assessment complements Iran's strategic reading of
the so-called Arab Spring as an "Islamic Awakening", and one whose long-term
geopolitical consequences will strengthen Iran's position at the expense of the
United States and Israel.
But outside the confines of officialdom, while most independent Iranian experts
and observers may share the general assessment that Assad will probably
survive, they are beginning to worry aloud about the consequences should the
Syrian regime either be overthrown or become emasculated by its increasingly
The cause for the greatest worry is a lack of complexity in Iran's policy and
the near total absence of any outreach to Syrian opposition groups. It is
noteworthy that the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most
hostile to Iran in the Arab world.
It is entirely conceivable that any diminution of Alawite political power in
Syria (let alone the downfall of Assad and the ruling clique) will re-orient
Syria towards the Sunni Arab political order at the expense of Iran. Under this
scenario, even if the Iranian-Syrian alliance endures in one form or another,
the Islamic Republic's position on the eastern banks of the Mediterranean Sea
will become increasingly vulnerable.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
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