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    Middle East
     Sep 1, 2011


Iran makes a u-turn on Syria
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

After months of tacitly echoing Damascus' dismissal of the growing political opposition as armed gangs and foreign agents, Tehran has adjusted its policy by referring to the "legitimate demands" of protesters and the need for the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad to respect "people's right to elect and achieve freedom", to quote Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in a recent interview with an Arab network.

Simultaneously, in the wake of last week's European Union sanctions on the elite al-Qods branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, accusing it of providing material support to Damascus to suppress the ongoing revolt, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Ramin Mehmanparast, has categorically denied the EU's accusation, branding it "unfounded

 
and aiming at blaming other countries".

At least 88 people, including 10 children, have died in detention in Syria since unrest broke out in March, according to Amnesty International. Majority of the victims were tortured or ill-treated, Amnesty said this week. At least 2,200 people have been killed since the start of the uprising, according to the United Nations.

"Iran's reading of the crisis situation in Syria has turned a leaf toward political realism, that is, the knowledge and realization that Assad's regime may crumble in the not too distant future and Iran should not be hooked to a sinking ship," said a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity.

He added, however, that Iran's ruling elite was still optimistic that with "due changes and reforms", the embattled Syrian government could survive and "in essence Iran has not advocated anything that President Assad himself has not already accepted in principle".

The million dollar question, though, is whether or not Assad's reform initiatives, such as adopting a more liberal press law, reflect a remedy too late, in light of the climbing death toll in the streets of various cities and the likely prospect of the capital city's imminent infection by the virus of popular protests.

Behind Tehran's decision to alter its approach to the Syrian political crisis are a number of important regional as well as internal considerations. As masters of survival who have successfully weathered the torrents of war, armed opposition and mass protests over the past 32 years, the leaders of the Islamic Republic are political pragmatists who rarely allow the rather thick lens of ideology or dogma to obliterate their grasp of political dynamics. They prefer to be ahead rather than behind political curves.

In essence, that means a dualistic approach toward Syria from now on, one track being in league with Turkey and other regional powers pushing for democratic reform, the other still in sync with alliance politics dictating discrete support for Assad's regime and opposing any Libyan-style foreign intervention.

According to various media reports in Iran, last week's Tehran visit by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, was an important catalyst in shifting Iran's policy away from a blind support for Assad and in favor of a more nuanced approach that emphasizes genuine political reforms.

There are those in Tehran who think that Iran has decided to move closer to its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf by distancing itself from the moribund Assad regime, which may experience serious cracks in its political, administrative and military institutions in the immediate future as a result of the growing mass discontent.

In turn, this raises a fundamental question: how valuable is Syria's alliance to Iran today, and is it worth risking a major cognitive dissonance, in light of Iran's overt support for the Arab Spring?

Indeed, the instant result of Iran's new approach toward Syria is that it closes the previous gap, between Iran's support for political transformations in other parts of the Arab world and Iran's non-support for the similar process underway in Syria, thus allowing Tehran to declare that it pursues a consistent and logical policy with respect to the current Middle East upheavals.

Perhaps equally important, the new Tehran policy toward Syria is bound to reward the regime by also bringing Iran and Turkey closer together, in light of Ankara's recent announcement that it has "lost confidence" in the Assad regime. (See Iran draws the line with Turkey on Syria Asia Times Online, July 26, 2011.)

Iran's primary concern is the vital Persian Gulf, and despite all the talk of "strategic depth" as a result of the alliance with Syria, the principal concern of Iran is to improve its standing in the immediate region that has vast geo-economic value.

No longer menaced by Iraq, as it was during the bloody eight-year war during the 1980s, Iran is fundamentally less beholden to Syria acting as a "vital bridge to the Arab world", particularly since the gates of diplomacy with the Arab world's biggest power, Egypt, have begun to slowly open, given the prospect of normalization between Tehran and Cairo.

In addition, Tehran's leaders have not forgotten recent statements from Damascus of support for Saudi intervention in Bahrain, in the name of Arab nationalism, which truly surprised and even dismayed Tehran.

"There has always been a nagging concern that Assad's regime would sell out Iran in no time if the price was right, but that never happened and Assad we may recall solidly supported Iran during the upheaval of 2009 following the presidential elections," says the Tehran professor.

As a result, Tehran has nuanced itself rather than come out too strongly against Damascus, thus protecting itself from the charge of hypocrisy and double standards, this while harvesting the gained ability to push for reform in neighboring Bahrain, where the simmering protests have met the iron fist of Saudi-backed official repression. Said otherwise, Iran can now have a greater say in Bahraini affairs, by opting to recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian opposition.

But, as with any major policy shift, there are also unintended consequences, such as a cooling in relations with Damascus in the event that Assad survives. Damascus would then look at Iran as a half-loyal friend that cannot be fully trusted.

There is, in other words, an inevitable element of risk in Iran's new policy that could adversely affect its regional fortunes, depending on the dynamic of political change in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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