Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al Halaqi’s visit to Tehran on Tuesday is a further demonstration of how reliant the Syrian regime has become on Iranian support. The Syrian premier, who was accompanied by ministers of oil, energy and finance, seemed to have been seeking increased Iranian aid to his government, which has been shaken by two years of social and political unrest.
Iran is the Syrian regime’s sole regional ally and has been supporting its bloody crackdown against the protest movement since its inception. For many, the Syrian-Iranian relationship is increasingly taking a sectarian character, something Iran has strongly resisted at the beginning of the Arab revolutions.
In fact, from the start of what has now become widely known as the Arab Spring, Iran tried to assume intellectual and geopolitical leadership of the unrest in the Arab world. Iran was well aware that it was in competition with Turkey over leadership of the Middle East and that Ankara was in a far better position — economically, diplomatically and religiously as a Sunni power — to assume that role.
This has not deterred Tehran from trying to position itself as the champion of the Arab masses that have risen in opposition to autocratic regimes. The sheer number of Iranian officials who are fluent in Arabic highlights the efforts of Tehran to overcome the ethno-linguistic geopolitical constraints it faces as a Persian Shiite country trying to operate in a region where most Muslim countries are Sunni.
While its anti-US and anti-Israeli position has allowed Iran to circumvent the ethnic factor and attract support in the Arab and Muslim worlds, its Shiite sectarian character has allowed competitors in the region — mainly Turkey — to restrict its regional influence.
Furthermore, while Iranian officials have from the start been praising Arab revival and stressing the need to support the Arab masses in their struggle against autocracy, one unmistakable tension was clear. The revolution in Syria has proven embarrassing for Iran. The Iranian regime is having a hard time trying to reconcile its support for the Arab unrest on one hand and supporting the Syrian regime against its opposition on the other.
In fact, Iran tried to present itself as a balanced party in the Syrian crisis, but failed to act likewise. On several occasions, senior Iranian officials have called upon Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to stop violence against peaceful protesters and undertake genuine reforms instead. But these remained mere words. They never represented a major shift in Iran’s original position on the Syrian crisis.
Iran’s failure to retrain its ally and force him to change his approach to the crisis has shown that it is more occupied with regional politics rather than building credibility amongst Arabs. From an Iranian perspective, relations with Syria are extremely important to further its regional ambitions. Syria is viewed by Tehran as a primary partner in the Arab-Israeli conflict, offering Iran a symbolic political role in the central cause of the region.
The occupation of Iraq increased Syria’s importance to Tehran, giving it vital access to most of the region’s problems. Through Syria, Iran could use most of its regional cards as a bargaining chip concerning its nuclear programme and threats by the US military. For all these reasons, Iran has failed to adopt a consistent approach in dealing with the Arab revolutions.
Realpolitik, the regional balance of power, threat perceptions, and above all, the fear of seeing a Sunni regime in Damascus has prevented Iran from considering other political alternatives in dealing with the Syrian crisis. This was particularly obvious at a time when Iran believed that it had come so close to realising its dream — transforming itself into a regional hegemon.
When the Syrian crisis began, Iran was preparing for its long-awaited moment; the US was evacuating troops from Iraq and retreating from the region under the pressure of the economic crisis, leaving Iran to fill the political vacuum. Losing Syria at that particular juncture would have had a disastrous impact on Iran’s grand regional design. Iran did not hence surprise many when it decided to stick with its ally in Damascus.
At some point in the future Iran will discover that it has made the wrong choice. Sooner or later the Syrian regime will disappear from the scene and Iran will be left without a friend in the new Syria.
Most Syrians do not understand Iran’s regional motives for supporting their oppressor. All they know now is that Iran is acting in a sectarian manner and is supporting a tyrant. Given the level of violence inflicted against them, Syrians might forgive, but will not forget.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.