With its firm support for Assad, Tehran is running a great risk

It is no easy thing to let your best friend go. But Iran needs to change its attitude towards the Syrian regime if it wants to stay a relevant player in the Middle East.

Mareike Enghusen
21 August 2012
An activist masquerades as Ali Khamenei during a protest - Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

An activist masquerades as Ali Khamenei during a protest - Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

At a moment when the fall of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad seems to be only a matter of time, Iran’s support for its embattled ally is unwavering. On August 7, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, told Syrian state television in Damascus that Iran would not allow the 'enemies' to break the 'axis of resistance', of which Syria is an 'integral part'. Iran’s support for Assad is not merely verbal: western secret services assume that Tehran provides Assad with intelligence, communication, and advice. And a UN report from June accuses Iran of sending weapons to Syria, thus violating a UN ban on arm sales by the Islamic Republic.

Iran has some good reasons to stand by Assad: Syria is Iran’s most important – in fact its only true – state ally in the Middle East. The alliance dates back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when Syria was the first Arab state to recognize Iran’s interim government after the Shah’s fall. The two countries cooperated in the early years of the Lebanese civil war and later, from the early 1990s onwards, in supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. Today, this alliance safeguards Iran from regional isolation; and Iran needs Syria for the transit of weapon shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is why Iran wants to save the alliance with Assad at all costs. Yet this strategy carries great risks.

Firstly, Iran is antagonizing the Syrian rebels. On August 4, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) abducted 48 Iranians near Damascus, accused them of being soldiers helping Assad and declared: 'We promise Iran and all those who support this regime... we will attack all (Iranian) targets in Syria.' Iran denied having any soldiers in Syria and claimed the abducted Iranians were pilgrims. It doesn't matter who is right: the fact that the rebels identify Iran as their enemy means that, if Assad falls, any future Syrian government will take a highly suspicious, if not outright hostile, attitude vis-à-vis Tehran. This would make Iran’s geopolitical position much more difficult.

Secondly, by fighting against the Syrian rebels, Iran is also fighting against Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are supplying the FSA with weapons. The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states dates from before the Arab Spring: since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has supported insurgent Shiite groups throughout the region, a pursuit autocratically-ruled Sunni Arab states with Shiite minorities (such as Saudi Arabia) perceive as a threat to their rule. In 2010, Wikileaks revealed that the Saudi King had even called on the US to attack Iran. On Syrian soil this Sunni-Shiite rivalry is now being transformed into a proxy war, a proxy war Iran is likely to lose.

Thirdly, Iran is also ruining its relations with Turkey. Relations between the two countries had greatly improved after the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained power in Turkey in 2002, resulting in an exponential growth of bilateral trade and Turkish support for Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. Yet in Syria, the two states find themselves on opposing sides. Turkey, troubled by the unrest at its southern border and the influx of Syrian refugees, has called on Assad to step back. Turkey also allows Qatar and Saudi Arabia to use its territory for arms shipments to the FSA, and rumours claim that it is training Syrian rebels. Iran’s Chief of Staff Hasan Firuzabadi recently accused Turkey of defending western interests in Syria, to which Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdorgan replied: 'On Syria, once again I ask the Iranians: does defending a regime that kills its brothers, and I think the number has reached 25,000 by now, suit our values?' With Turkey, Tehran is losing one of the few countries in the Middle East with which it had somewhat favourable relations. As a result, Assad’s fall would leave Iran virtually isolated in the region.

Finally, Iran’s support for Assad is a propagandistic disaster for Tehran. When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, the Iranian government cheered for the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia, portraying the uprising as an imitation of Iran’s own Islamic Revolution. Yet when protests broke out in Syria two months later, Iran’s leaders did not have one word of criticism for Assad’s brutal crackdown. Instead, they portrayed the Syrian protesters as Zionist and US agents. This has cost Iran much credibility on the Arab street. Iran used to be popular among Arabs for its confrontational posture against the US and Israel. Yet opinion polls by the Arab American Institute suggest that Iran’s image has worsened dramatically in recent times: while in 2006, 90% of Egyptians perceived Iran’s role in the Middle East as positive, only 37% expressed this view in 2011. Among Saudis, the number fell from 85% to 6%.

After Assad’s fall, Iran will therefore find itself in an extremely weakened position. How will its leaders react? One option is that they will see themselves forced to adopt a more conciliatory foreign policy course, possibly including concessions in the longstanding dispute over the Iranian nuclear programme. Alternatively, Tehran, with its back against the wall, could call on its allies Hezbollah and Hamas to stir up a regional conflict, possibly involving Israel, to redirect the resources and the attention of its rivals elsewhere. And it could feel forced to speed up its nuclear programme as an ultimate defence.

Some, such as Vali Nasr, a distinguished Middle East expert, argue that there is another way out of the Iranian dilemma: the US should include Iran in the negotiations about Syria’s future. On the one hand, the argument goes, the US needs Iran to use its leverage over Assad to negotiate an orderly transition of power; on the other hand, Iran would be offered a way out of its isolation. This sounds instinctively attractive: such an Iranian-US cooperation, if successful, might not only stop the civil war in Syria, but also mitigate against mutual distrust. Ideally, this would even breathe new life into the nuclear deadlock.

Unfortunately, this scenario is unlikely. Washington sees Iran's role in Syria as part of the problem, not of the solution. And the Iranian government has shown very little appetite for compromise in recent years. Moreover, Iran’s leaders might fear a further loss of credibility – also and especially among their own people - if, after all the anti-American-tirades, they were now to sit down with their enemy to discuss the abdication of their friend. Therefore, the most likely scenario for Iran after Assad’s fall is further isolation – and possibly further radicalization.

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