Deciphering Iran's Newly Strained Relations With Syria

Iran is trying to keep Assad in power while courting the Arab street

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Iran's support for Syria, a longtime ally, has manifested itself in many ways during the Arab Spring. The Iranian regime has reportedly provided Syrian officials with military, financial, and technical assistance to quash protests, while Iran's state-run media has adopted the Syrian's government narrative that Syrian security forces are battling "armed terrorist groups" and foreign conspirators, not peaceful protesters (some have even suggested that Iran is orchestrating Syria's response to its uprising behind the scenes). But, over the last month or so, Iran has gotten tougher on Syria, urging President Bashar al-Assad's regime to negotiate with protesters and heed their legitimate demands by implementing reforms. This week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went even further by calling for Assad to end his crackdown on demonstrators, telling a Portuguese television station that "a military solution is never the right solution" (an "ironic assessment from a man whose own questionable re-election in 2009 prompted huge street demonstrations that were put down with decisive force," The New York Times observes). What's behind Iran's new stance on Syria?

For one thing, Iran is simply doing all it can to prevent Assad from being overthrown, even if that means stepping up its public rhetoric against his regime (privately, of course, Iran may very well be supporting Syria's brutal crackdown). "The collapse of the Assad government would be a strategic blow to Shiite-majority Iran, cutting off its most important bridge to the Arab world while empowering its main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and its increasingly influential competitor, Turkey, both Sunni-majority nations," the Times notes. "Iran would also lose its main arms pipeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon, further undermining its ambition to be the primary regional power from the Levant to Pakistan."

As the Syrian uprising drags on, Iran--which has vocally supported other, more politically beneficial uprisings in the Middle East--is also worried about being on the wrong side of popular sentiment in the region. "Not even Syria's friends think that unquestioning support for violence is a wise policy," an op-ed in Lebanon's Daily Star observed. In an interview with the Times, Iran expert and critic Karim Sadjadpour adds, "Iran wants to be perceived as the voice of the downtrodden in the Middle East, the one country that speaks truth to power. Their close rapport with the Assad regime undermines that image." But trying to uphold that image while preventing the Assad regime from collapsing is proving a difficult balancing act.

Iran, moreover, may be worried that reformist movements could crop up again at home if it continues to support the Assad regime. "The Khomeinist leadership is in a state of panic," Amir Taheri, a critic of Iran, declared in the Saudi-owned, London-based Asharq al-Awsat. "The ruling mullahs," he added, are concerned that they too "may be on the path of the tsunami of change."

Finally, Iran may be reevaluating the tenets of its foreign policy. "There is also an increasingly vocal school of thought in Iran that says it has too much vested in the Assad government," the Times explains. "Among other things, it has allowed regional competitors like Turkey, a largely Sunni country, to advance at the expense of Shiite Iran."

Whatever the reason, the changing tone in Iran is apparent in Iranian state media. A recent Press TV report, for example, admitted that protests against Assad's rule are occurring in Syria (a Fars News Agency article, however, continues to blame the unrest on "well-armed gangs that are reportedly supported by foreign sources").

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.