“The chain of resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway. Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel.”– Ali Akbar Velayati, Senior Advisor for Foreign Affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader, 6 January 2012
Since early 2011, Tehran’s longstanding Arab ally, the Syrian Ba’athist regime, has been locked in a struggle for survival against an unrelenting opposition. Iran has chosen to throw its weight behind the Syrian government, a move that has damaged its popularity in Arab societies. In many respects, Iran’s standing in the region is the lowest it has been since the Iran-Iraq War.
During the course of the conflict, Iranian support for the Syrian regime has wavered between absolute acquiescence and real concern about the actions taken by the Ba’ath government. In the end though, Iran has found that the risk of losing its only Arab ally demand continued support for the Assad regime.
Iran’s Declining Regional Popularity
Following his rise to power in 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic rhetoric toward Israel and its Western backers boosted Iran’s popularity. This coupled with Tel Aviv’s failure to deal a knock-out blow to the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah movement in the 2006 war in Lebanon boosted popular support in the Arab world for the “axis of resistance,” which included Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Tehran and Damascus successfully tapped into the disenchantment and frustration felt in much of the region due to lack of progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the absence of genuine political reforms and socio-economic development in many Arab states governed by pro-Western regimes. Indeed, immediately following the war in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad, and Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, were the most popular political figures in the region.
When the wave of popular protests first began in Tunisia in the winter of 2010-2011 and spread to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrations, which largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes.
Portraying the opposition movements as Islamist, the Iranian leadership confidently declared that the Arab Spring would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. For the clerics in Tehran, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies, with history on the side of Iran and its regional supporters.
All this changed with the eruption of protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an awkward position. The Iranian regime could ill afford to alienate its staunchest Arab ally. From the Iranian standpoint, if it stood idly by and refrained from aiding Assad, a new Syrian regime could emerge that would abandon the cooperation and support that had historically characterized Iran-Syria relations. Given these options, it is less than surprising that the clerical regime chose to support the Assad government.
However, in deciding to back the Assad regime’s crackdown on the Syrian opposition, the Iranian government lost substantial support among the Arab masses, which perceived Iran as hypocritical and opportunistic. Not only had Iran selectively supported the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, but it had violently crushed its own revolt at home in 2009-2010, when millions of Iranians rose up against the regime.
Moreover, since last winter, Iran’s stance on Syria has strained its relationship with the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. Despite Iranian pressure, the Hamas leadership has refused to voice its support for the Assad regime, and has, instead, publicly backed the Syrian opposition.
Today, one-and-a-half years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Iran’s regional popularity is a far cry from what it was only a few years ago. Because of its decision to support a regime that has killed thousands of its own citizens, people in much of the Arab-Islamic world no longer look to Iran and Ahmadinejad for leadership and inspiration.
The Evolving Nature of Iranian Support
Tehran initially hoped that by assisting and throwing its weight fully behind the Syrian regime Damascus would be able to ride out the crisis. As a result, Iran wholeheartedly supported the efforts of the Assad regime to crush the opposition, providing technical assistance, equipment, and expertise to stem the protests and eliminate the opponents of the Syrian Ba’ath.
By the summer of 2011, as the confrontation in Syria turned into a protracted crisis with no end in sight, the Iranian leadership began to worry that it would be on the wrong side of history. Iran grew increasingly uncomfortable with the situation in Syria, and questioned its policy toward the Assad regime. Tehran took the extraordinary step of approaching members of the Syrian opposition to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States, among other topics. Nothing substantial seems to have resulted from these overtures.
As the Syrian crisis continued into the autumn and winter of 2011, it assumed both a regional and international dimension. A proxy war began to emerge involving both regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arab states began providing material and financial support to the Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Iraq felt compelled to throw their support fully behind the Assad regime.
Tehran and its allies increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Syrian Ba’ath would pave the way for the emergence of a Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus that would be hostile to Shia governments and political actors.
On the international level, the United States and the European Union closed ranks to exert greater pressure and isolate the Assad regime. In the UN Security Council, Syrian and Iranian allies, Russia and China, consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that would lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition.
Syria’s opponents aimed to humble the Assad regime through a three-pronged approach –imposing economic sanctions, aiding the Syrian opposition militarily, and isolating Syria politically. In response, the Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to fully support the political leadership in Damascus by providing arms, oil, and financial aid.
The Consequences of Assad’s Overthrow
The removal of Assad would shift the entire geopolitical situation and balance of power in the Middle East. In terms of ideological and foreign policy objectives, it would arguably represent the Islamic Republic’s greatest loss on the regional level since its establishment in 1979.
In this regard, the observations of prominent Syria scholar, Patrick Seale, are salient. In his landmark work, “The Struggle for Syria,” Seale argues that Syria is a country of vital geopolitical importance in the Middle East. Whoever controls the country stands in a very advantageous position, and whoever enjoys an alliance with Syria need not bow to the will of other regional powers.
Over the past 33 years, Ba’athist Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. It has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. If it were to lose its most important Arab ally, Iran’s ability to provide support to Hezbollah and to influence the situation in the Arab-Israeli arena would be severely curtailed. For Iran and Hezbollah, the worst outcome of all would be if the Syrian regime were replaced by a Sunni fundamentalist government, which was staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia and preferred cultivating close ties with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
There is little doubt that the conflict in Syria has now entered a critical stage, and that the future of the Tehran-Damascus nexus hangs in the balance. To preserve this alliance, Tehran will do all it can to ensure that Bashar Assad is not toppled.
This has included Iranian maneuvering on the issue of negotiations. In recent months, Iran has tried to ensure an advantageous position for itself in any future multilateral peace negotiations on Syria. Last spring, then UN and Arab League Special Representative for Syria, Kofi Annan, stated that Iran must be involved in any negotiated settlement on Syria. Annan subsequently visited Tehran, in support of its involvement.
Iranian officials are keen to present themselves as key interlocutors who can play a constructive role in negotiations on Syria. In August 2012, Saeed Jalili, the top official from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), visited Damascus and held talks with Bashar Assad and other senior Syrian officials. At the end of these meetings, Jalili declared Tehran’s support for a ceasefire followed by negotiations and future elections.
Time will tell if Iran’s gambit succeeds and if the alliance with Syria will endure. Recent events and trends, though, do not leave much ground for optimism.
Jubin Goodarzi is a professor and researcher in the International Relations Department at Webster University Geneva, and has been a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs with the United Nations since 1996. He has worked with a number of US and UK research institutes and foundations, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, and the Ford Foundation in New York. Dr. Goodarzi is author of Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), and numerous articles and book reviews on the international relations of the Middle East.