In response to the uprisings spreading throughout the Arab world, Iran has reacted in such a way to maximize its power and potential influence in the region. Until April, Tehran had largely framed the current events in terms of the renewal of the 1979 Islamic revolution. This official narrative has been undermined by the growing unrest in the secular Arab state of Syria, which forced Iran to break its silence on the matter and provide new narratives for domestic consumption. Tehran’s challenge, however, is to successfully spin the recent events in order to explain the uprisings in secular Syria while still sticking to its original description of the region’s unrest as an “Islamic Awakening.” Such a narrative is important for a continued alliance between Damascus and Tehran, which has been relatively strong since 1980, especially in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. By assisting Damascus with the necessary intelligence and security measures to deal with its opposition movement, Tehran will be able to secure its relationship with the key Arab state, and will continue to thwart Arab adversaries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. If successful in its reaction to the events in Syria, Tehran will be able to reinforce its national interests and expand its reach in the region. If Syria is unsuccessful in subduing its revolt and goes the route of Egypt, then Iran will lose a major strategic ally and access to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could have a major impact on Iran’s position in the Middle East.
Syria is on the brink of great turmoil and Iran, subsequently, has a dilemma at hand. Since the toppling of the Mubarak regime in January, Tehran has described the unfolding Arab uprisings as an “Islamic awaking” (The Jamestown Foundation, February 3, 2011). It has largely framed the current events in terms of the renewal of the 1979 Islamic revolution and the rise of a “new Islamic Middle East” as a great blow to U.S. interests (Fars News, January 28).
Syria, however, is an exception to the rule. This is the case, Tehran argued, because the Assad regime, unlike other Arab governments, has maintained close relations with its citizens and has remained one of West’s greatest foes, following Iran. But the growing unrest that has rocked Syria in recent weeks has undermined the official narrative of the Iranian regime, revealing for many Iranians how intensely the Syrian experience is connected to other Arab uprisings that continue to develop in unpredictable ways. What has been Iran’s reaction to the Syrian unrest?
Until April, Tehran had remained quiet about Syria. During the initial outbreaks, the state media deliberately avoided reports on Syria— official news mainly focused on street protests in Bahrain and Yemen, two countries with Shia populations (IRTV, March 14-25). The momentum of events became so great, however, that Tehran had to break its silence, providing several narratives for domestic consumption. The first argument remarkably resembled the Syrian government’s position, which basically blamed the unrest on Israel and the U.S. (Fars News, April 18). The second narrative focused on Saudis and other Gulf states, in particular the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news agency, for fomenting division (fitna) in Syria, in similar ways to the 2009 post-election unrest in Iran (IRNA, April 15; Fars News, April 17). Closely connected to the second argument, other reports discussed a Sunni-led Lebanese contribution, mainly led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is backed by Saudis (Press TV, April 15). In all the three narratives, the rhetorical strategy has consistently resembled Iran’s earlier attempt to characterize its own opposition movement as a proxy of foreign foes, the difference being that Syria has apparently many other Arab adversaries who seek to destabilize the country that gave birth to Arab nationalism. The key difficulty with such rhetoric, however, lies in the grand narrative about an “Islamic awakening” that somehow has missed Syria as a secular Arab state with close ties to Iran. How can Tehran reconcile such tension?
In many ways, the downplay of Iranian coverage of events in Syria is reminiscent of the 1982 Iraqi-backed Islamist uprising in Hama in February of that year, during which relations between the two countries had intensified, with the aim of thwarting Baghdad, Tel Aviv and Washington. Since 1980, especially in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Damascus and Tehran have maintained a remarkable alliance marked by close collaboration to react to new challenges and opportunities to frustrate mutual enemies like Israel and the U.S. Both partners have offered each other significant strategic and material support during various historical periods, especially during the Iraqi invasion of Iran and American and Israeli attempts to marginalize Syria in the 1980s when regional wars served only to expand relations between the countries.
From Iran’s strategic vantage point, an alliance with Syria, a key Arab state, has allowed it to thwart Arab adversaries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia and, more importantly, spread its sphere of influence among Shia Lebanese, who reside at the doorstep of Israel. For Syria, the Iranian alliance provides support against its other Arab adversaries and also has greater influence in the Gulf region with potential for commerce. The Syrian-Iranian nexus is, therefore, a partnership for regional influence, the main ambition of the two states. In post-Ba’athist Iraq, the strategic alliance between Damascus and Tehran has grown even stronger, with the signing of a military cooperation aiming to prevent a U.S. attack on either country (IRNA, June 16, 2006). Such military collaboration has included economic cooperation, including the building of a gas pipeline for transferring Iranian natural gas to Syria (Press TV, January 20) and the manufacturing of Iranian-made cars in Syria (Fars News, April 17). Despite possible tensions between Iran and Syria over Tehran’s increasing interference in Lebanese politics, which allegedly resulted in the confiscation of a shipment of Iranian explosives to Hizbollah (Asharq al Awsat, October 6, 2010), the two countries continue to maintain close ties with the secular Arab state, leaving Washington with little leverage over them.
The latest U.S. assertion that Tehran is assisting Damascus with intelligence and crowd control measures against street protesters, which Iran has rejected (IRNA, April 18), should be viewed in the context of growing ties between the two states since 2003, especially after Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus in 2010 (Al-Jazeera, Feb 25, 2010). The narrative for mutual support is anchored in the perceived threat of a U.S.-led soft revolution with the aim of regime change. The shift toward a “soft war” strategy against anti-government forces in Syria is a blow to Tehran’s policy in dealing with its own opposition movement, which saw its revival, and brutal crackdown, on February 14. With nearly two years of experience, Tehran appears confident that its successful tactics to stifle internal dissent will provide Damascus with the necessary intelligence and security measures to deal with its own domestic opposition movement.
What remains uncertain for Tehran, however, is the extent to which growing instability in Syria, and other countries like Bahrain, could lead to potential conflicts in the region, especially in the Gulf, where Iran seeks to thwart Saudi military presence in Bahrain (Fars News, April 18; IRNA, April 18). In the 1980s the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement, cemented by closer ties between Baghdad and Washington, helped prolong the Iran-Iraq war, a conflict which later spilled into the Gulf, threatening the economic stability of the region and the globe for years. While the post-Mubarak Arab Middle East is significantly different from the 1980s, the prospect of sudden changes in Syrian-Iranian relations could impact not only the stability of the Levant but also the Persian Gulf. Tehran is fully aware of this possible scenario and it aims to use this delicate alliance of convenience in a way to frustrate the U.S. and its Arab allies, while the region undergoes dramatic political changes with unpredictable trajectories.
In a post-Mubarak era, however, the Tehran-Damascus axis should not be seen as entirely stable either. As Assad increasingly attempts to strength ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates for greater economic reach in the Gulf, and with enhanced efforts to revive diplomatic ties with Washington in order to pressure Israel for eventual negotiations over the Golan Heights, Tehran might not see eye to eye with the new Damascus.
From Iran’s regional perspective, the need to play an active role in the Levant and the Gulf to prevent the expansion of American and Saudi influence in the region has a direct bearing on its ongoing strategy to avert the rise of anti-Iranian sentiment in the Arab region, as was the case in the 1980s. While the two states will likely keep an alliance, even if Assad’s regime is toppled, the changing political map of the region might push Tehran to reformulate a new regional policy that could involve improved ties with fledging democratic Sunni states like Egypt (PRESS TV, April 18, 2011). In many ways, Tehran still needs to reinforce its national interests by surmounting its reach in the region in forming close ties with an Arab state, hence diminishing Sunni states with pro-American tendencies. So, a post-Assad Syria might seek closer ties with Riyadh and Washington, but it cannot ignore Iran’s attempts in seeking greater influence in the Levant, especially in southern Lebanon where Damascus maintains significant historical and political interests. Irrespective of the political situation in Syria, Iran will likely use the post-Ba’athist Iraq as its proxy presence as a regional power in an age of declining U.S. influence in the region.