Iran – Syrian ally to the bitter end

A group of Iranian pilgrims captured by the Free Syria Army who claim are Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Al Arabiya

This week the Islamic Republic of Iran made a blunt statement, reiterating its position in relation to the on-going conflict in Syria.

According to Saeed Jalili, a senior advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader, the escalating conflict in Syria is not due to internal factors; the conflict is a result of an orchestrated campaign by the United States and its regional allies to topple Bashar al-Assad.

Jalili made this point while visiting Damascus. He went on to say that Syria and Iran constitute an “axis of resistance” against Israel and the United States, pledging to help Al-Assad crush his opponents.

Iran’s commitment to the Assad regime was demonstrated earlier when a group of Iranians were detained by the rebels in Syria. Iran denied that they were involved in military espionage, claiming they were retired members of the Revolutionary Guards on a pilgrimage. This is a highly dubious claim.

The world changing around Iran

The problem for the Islamic regime in Iran is that its world-view has been knocked out by the Arab revolutions. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic regime presented itself as the true champion of the downtrodden Muslims in the Middle East.

It forecast popular uprisings in the region and the fall of incumbent regimes friendly to the United States. Iran paid a heavy price for its undiplomatic attitude towards its neighbours. Arab states in the Persian Gulf were annoyed and worried about the outlandish declarations of the Islamic regime in Iran following its establishment.

Against this background, the Iraqi push into Iran in 1980 galvanised support among the Arab ruling elite, which in turn reinforced Iran’s unfaltering view of its neighbours. But this view was put under serious strain during the Arab revolution.

In its initial phase, the Arab revolution appeared to follow the Iranian script. Two pro-Western governments in Tunisia and Egypt were brought down by popular uprisings. The Iranian leadership was quick to claim credit by suggesting that the Arabs were finally following the Iranian model. This claim was of course rejected in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood which has now become the key political player in the post-Mubarak era has been adamant to emphasise its rejection of the Iran model.

Syrian forces in the Aleppo battleground suburb of Salehedine SANA news agency

Indeed Islamism was conspicuous by its absence in the Arab revolution; the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood itself is a rather a post-revolution experience.

Soon other holes started appearing in the Iranian narrative of the Arab revolution. Libya and Syria were engulfed in the same social upheavals that had challenged the status quo.

The spread of the revolution to Syria has been particularly challenging for the Islamic regime in Iran for a number of inter-related reasons.

Ideological grounds

In the Iranian version of history, Syria should have been immune to popular uprising. Syria’s history of war with Israel and its confrontational relationship with the United States should have saved the Assad regime and put it on the right side of history.

Instead the same desire for political accountability and responsible governance that spurred other Arab nations to action, also inspired the Syrian population. This put a lie to the Manichean Iranian view of history that forecasts the victory of the forces of good against evil: that is Islamist victory over the United States and its local allies.

Because of this ideological underpinning, Iran cannot allow al-Assad to fall, and has accused the rebels of being in the pay of the United States. Emphasising links between Syrian rebels and their Arab backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Iran is trying to bring the Syrian experience back into line with its worldview.

The strategic situation and domestic implications

Syria is the only state ally of the Islamic regime in the region, giving Iran the opportunity to threaten Israel. Al-Assad’s fall would deprive Iran of a major strategic advantage.

Perhaps most important of all, the Islamic leadership in Iran is very sensitive to the prospects of revolution in Iran. After all, before the Arab revolution of 2010 we had the Green Movement of 2009 which shook the regime to its core.

The Green movement emerged as an electoral campaign for the reformist presidential candidate Hussein Mousavi and soon morphed into a rebellion against the state, questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic model of government and the supremacy of the Supreme Leader. The movement was put down by force, and the Islamic regime has been vigilant about preventing its resurgance. It was revealing that the regime declined permission for commemorative rallies to celebrate the Arab revolution in 2011, lest these rallies become a staging ground for the Green movement.

The Islamic regime in Iran has very few friends and cannot afford to lose any. The fall of al-Assad in Syria would deprive Iran of a key regional partner and increase the prospects of revolution in Iran.

In that respect the regime sees its future tied with that of Syria. The Islamic regime has drawn a line in the sand. This is where they stand or fall.