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Iran's Nightmare: Losing Syria

by MEA CYRUS in London

29 Apr 2011 20:00Comments
Asad-Khamenei2-1.jpgIslamic Republic regime fears Assad losing grip, inspiring revival of Iranian protests.

[ analysis ] Iran seems to have benefited from the Arab revolts and regime changes in Africa and the Middle East. It is already enjoying a better relationship with Egypt -- gaining access to the Suez Canal for its warships and moving closer to an exchange of ambassadors, both for the first time since the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Revolution. However, Tehran is greatly concerned about losing Syria to the same trend of popular uprisings.

Syria has been Iran's most important regional ally since the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Syria has been Iran's main platform from which it has built formidable influence over the Arab-Israeli conflict, setting up Hezbollah in Lebanon and supporting Palestinian groups, mainly Hamas in Gaza. Tehran officials are beginning to wonder what their alternatives are in ensuring the maintenance of the status quo with Israel.

With the growing level of violence employed by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, it is increasingly clear that the Syrian president's options in dealing with his people are shrinking fast. While the president's father, Hafez al-Assad, was willing to perpetrate the infamous massacre in Hama back in the 1980s, in which 20,000 people were killed, the current domino revolutions in the Arab world have put Syria's government in a serious bind.

Iran's policy towards the domino revolutions has been selective: support those that Tehran approves and reject or remain silent about those the ayatollahs do not look on favorably, as with Syria. The Iranian government and state-controlled and -aligned media have been loud in drawing attention to what is happening in Yemen and Bahrain. But when it comes to Syria, the silence is deafening. In the Syrain case, the policy, according to the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, becomes to step aside and leave the unrest as "an internal affair."

Ironically, Iran and the United States have similar approaches in this field: how to deal with a wave that threatens one's interests in some countries while serving one in others. Washington's reactions to the popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the civil war in Libya have not been reflected in the Yemeni and Bahraini unrest, evidently due to strategic interests like the U.S. Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain and the al-Qaeda front in Yemen. Iran's reaction to what is happening in the Arab world reveals the same logic.

A stable Syria is key to Iran's ability to keep Israel and the West under pressure regionally, as well as to maintain a strong posture internally. The 25 Bahman demonstrations aside, the Iranian opposition seems to have been unable to take advantage of the Arab uprisings to revive the call for protests, a wave triggered by the 2009 presidential elections. One wonders what might have happened in Iran if the post-election protests had not taken place and the pent-up energy was suddenly released under the effect of the Arab domino revolts. By the time Arabs took to the street, the Iranian government had managed to get a firm grip on the situation, the demonstrations this February notwithstanding.

The Iranian government felt comfortable in dealing with the Arab domino effect simply by putting opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and their wives under house arrest, which did not lead to significant further protests by their followers and the general public. But now with the unrest in Syria yielding a bloody crackdown, Tehran is concerned that there might be some surprises at home as well.

Depending on the outcome of events in Syria, it is possible that protests inside Iran might be reinvigorated, due to the close ties between Tehran and Damascus. Such concerns must have been why the Iranian regime scrambled to bolster Assad's rule. There are reports of Iran helping the Syrian government in many ways, including passing along well-tested tricks in how to suppress large crowds and cut off the main arteries that fuel mass protests.

The Syrian regime -- like those of many Arab countries that have decided to raise the level of violence against protesters -- has placed its bets on a harsh crackdown. In Bahrain and Yemen, state violence is widespread and the Gulf Cooperation Council's military intervention showed that violence can be used against peaceful protesters without provoking a Western military response as occurred in Libya. The strategic thinking in Tehran and Damascus is that, as in Bahrain and Yemen, Syria is not a likely target for Western intervention. The Tehran leadership hopes the Assad dynasty can hold on and overcome the uprising before it inspires the Iranian opposition to organize new protests. The regime would like nothing more than for the outcome in Syria to suggest that any attempt to stage protests in Iran is futile.

Archive photos.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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