How Iran's Syria Policy Is Making it Lose the Regional Popularity Contest

Iran's unyielding support of Assad is damaging its standing in the Middle East and feeding into a growing regional trust deficit.
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Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (L) chats with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) while on their way to an official dinner in Damascus on February 25, 2010. (Reuters)

These days, there are not many things that Arabs agree on. In fact, it may be fair to say they agree to disagree more often than not when it comes to regional policy. But Iran, once the darling of the Arab Street, is finding both popular and government opinion turning against it. And at the heart of the matter lies official Iranian attitude towards sectarianism and the Syrian uprising.

For years, Iran, and especially Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, enjoyed the unwavering support of the Arab general public, especially following the 2006 war in Lebanon. Many perceived Iran as the outspoken guardian of the Muslim world; a country that had the guts to oppose compromise in the Arab-Israeli peace process and support Hezbollah in its struggle against Israel. But this is no longer the case, and Iran knows it.

Iran seems to be gaining power but losing friends. The scary thing is that this may not matter.

So the Iranian regime is trying to regain some positive influence. It's partly why Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was in Amman, Jordan, recently to meet Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and King Abdullah II. Jordan's government welcomed the opportunity to discuss Syria with their Iranian counterparts. But the response was different in Parliament: Bassam al-Manaseer, chairman of the Arab and Foreign Relations Committee of the Jordanian Parliament, called the visit "unwelcomed" and expressed his concerns over "suspicious" Iranian activities in the region.

Why would a country like Jordan feel so strongly about Iran? After all, Jordan doesn't share a border with Iran and has only minimal trade ties with the country. In late 2012, when Iran offered to send it oil, Jordan refused. It turned instead to its long-term Gulf donors in a tactical show of unity. What's more, Jordan enjoys close ties with the U.S. and relative stability with the Israelis, so it should not be fearful of a distant troublemaker. But Iran's unyielding support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is damaging to its standing in the Middle East and feeding into a growing regional trust deficit.

As it drags on, the Syrian civil war is edging closer to Jordan. The kingdom risks being drawn into a conflict it is desperate to avoid. Iran's role in Syria is significant and well-known -- they supply Assad's regime with weapons and advisors, and recently allowed Hezbollah fighters to cross into Syria and fight alongside government forces.

Iran is considered to be contributing towards the dire economic situation in Jordan by prolonging the Syrian conflict. Since the start of the uprising in March 2011, Jordan has received refugees fleeing Syria, despite its strained resources. The sharp increase in demand for housing has doubled prices in some areas, making it difficult for both ordinary Jordanians and Syrian newcomers. It's hard to ignore the growing number of Syrian number plates when driving in Amman ("Look, they're everywhere" said our taxi driver.) The risk of Islamist-extremist infiltration in refugee camps is a rising concern. The effects of the Syrian crisis are being felt by all; government, opposition (including Islamists), activists, and ordinary Jordanians and because of it, they are unequivocal about their dislike of Iran.

Growing sectarian divides between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region are also blamed on Iran. One Jordanian opposition figure stated that Iran is "trying to make Shia communities more militant" and "inflaming" the Shia-Sunni conflict in order to extend its Islamic revolution. The perception is that Iran is stoking sectarian tensions not out of belief in the Shia cause, but instead, using Shia communities to insert itself into the social and political networks of all states in the region. This has a double effect: increasing resentment among regional political establishments and gradual growth in aversion to anything related to religion.

Jordanians abhorred Iran's suggestion of oil in exchange for the right to visit holy sites in southern Jordan last year. Even Islamists are beginning to question Iran's policies: One Islamic party member complained that Iran is selective in its support of Islamic movements in the region -- "it supports them when it is in the Iranian government's interest".

Jordan is no exception, just a barometer for the region. General Arab resentment and the magnitude of prejudices towards Iran have risen. Signs of wavering support on the Arab streets first emerged in 2009. The Iranian regime's crackdown on pro-democracy protestors during the presidential elections was viewed with surprise. Wasn't this the nation championing people's rights and standing up to the Satans of the world?

Iran's reaction to the Arab Spring nailed the coffin. It high-jacked the wave of uprisings as an " Islamic Awakening" and set double-standards by supporting uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt, while silencing dissent at home. It increasingly meddled in the internal affairs of countries like Iraq. But it was Iran's growing reliance on sectarianism and its involvement in Syria that really tipped the balance. Iran, once perceived as a symbol of resistance to the West in the region, is now seen as a troublesome attention-seeker.

Iran seems to be gaining power but losing friends. The scary thing is that this may not matter. No Middle Eastern country is in a position to militarily threaten Iran. Even a coalition of countries in the region would have a very hard time achieving any objectives against Tehran. The shadow Iran casts on its neighborhood is much wider than its international specter. The region is not afraid of Iran for its weaknesses; they are afraid of its strengths.

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Presented by

Dina Esfandiary and Islam Al Tayeb

Dina Esfandiary is a research associate with the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); Islam Al Tayeb is a research analyst at IISS-Middle East.

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