The violent confrontation between Bashar Assad’s regime and opposition forces, now fifteen months old, has generated much concern in Iran, on two counts. First, the collapse of the regime would present a serious threat to Iran’s strategic interests. Syria has been one of Iran’s closest and most important allies since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, and the fall of the Assad regime would hamper Iran’s ability to project power into the eastern Mediterranean-Levant region. Second, the events in Syria do not align with Iran’s narrative of the Arab Spring uprisings as an “Islamic Awakening” inspired by Iran’s own 1979 Islamic Revolution. Therefore, it threatens not only the viability of that narrative, but the Iranian authorities’ use of that narrative to justify their own rule.
Part of the reason for Syria’s importance to Iran is its strategic position vis-à-vis Israel. With Syria’s help, Iran has been able to extend its influence throughout the Levant, particularly by supporting and arming the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. Iran’s ability to shape events in the region is both a source and symbol of its strategic power. Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, has described “Palestine’s freedom” as being “at the center of Iran’s strategic policies.” Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and currently a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, emphasized on one occasion that Syria is “the golden ring” in the “chain of resistance against Israel.”
Iranian leaders have acknowledged that regime change in Syria could affect its local allies and overall strategic posture. “We are worried about the resistance against Israel,” said Asad Zarei, an Iranian political analyst. “If the changes in Syria happen in a way that the resistance is undermined, we are very worried.”
Reflecting that concern, Iran has provided support to the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. According to American and European officials, members of Syrian opposition groups, and others, Iran is providing material support—shipments of light weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment, technology that can be used to block and monitor internet and cellphone communications, and riot control gear—to the Syrian government to assist in the crackdown. Several rounds of sanctions on the individuals and organizations involved in these efforts have been imposed by the United States and the European Union.
Iran has also been accused of advising Syrian leaders on “best practices” for suppressing the protests, an area in which it has a fair amount of experience. According to members of the Syrian opposition, Iran has sent advisers, security officials, and intelligence operatives to Syria. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, is said to have directly overseen this effort, including visiting Syria to advise Assad. There have also been reports that Iranian paramilitary forces are present in Syria and are participating in the crackdown on protesters.
While it is difficult to determine the extent and nature of Iran’s involvement in Syria from the information that is publicly available, it is reasonable to assume that Iran is indeed aiding the Assad regime, given Iran’s overriding interest in its survival.
Still, it is not clear if Iranian forces are actually present in Syria. Members of the Syrian opposition “acknowledge [that] they have little hard evidence that Iranians are actually participating in the offensives.” As for the value of Iran’s support, a U.S. official stated some months ago that Iranian aid to Assad was “important but not really a game changer in the overall conflict.”
Iran’s denials of involvement are coupled with consistent accusations that other outside parties, primarily the United States, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, are fueling the Syrian uprising. Iranian officials and media often report that the majority of the peaceful Syrian protesters are actually expressing their support for Assad, while those fighting against the regime represent Western-backed groups who are trying “to divide the Syrian nation,” topple the regime, and break the Iranian-led axis of resistance against Israel. Syrian government insistence that the violence is the work of “outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorist groups” orchestrated from abroad is repeated by Tehran.
Iran’s warnings against foreign interference in Syria not only reflect Iran’s interest in seeing Assad remain in power, but also Iran’s fear of the precedent that foreign intervention in Syria might set. Talk of a NATO campaign to aid the opposition in Syria, particularly in the wake of last year’s NATO air campaign to support the opposition forces fighting the Qaddafi regime in Libya, raises fears among Iranian leaders that a similar campaign might be launched against them.
Iran, Syria, and the Islamic Awakening
Iran’s continuing support for Assad has not come without costs. It has put Iran at odds with the vast majority of nations and strained its relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It has also tarnished Iran’s narrative of the Arab Spring as an Islamic Awakening inspired by Iran’s own Islamic Revolution. According to this narrative, in expressing opposition to their leaders, Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, and Libyan protestors were rejecting not only their own autocratic leaders but also America’s predominant position in the Middle East, Israeli hegemony, and secularism—all tenets that remain central to the Islamic Republic’s worldview.
Though those uprisings did not neatly fit the mold into which Iran was trying to force them, Iran’s characterization of them was sufficiently connected to reality so as to allow Iran to benefit from it, domestically and regionally. Moreover, Iran’s interests were in fact served by the toppling of the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan regimes. However, the Syrian uprising, emanating from the country’s Sunni majority against its Alawi (proto-Shi’i) rulers, threatens to irrevocably mar Tehran’s grand narrative.
While Iran’s leaders could not and have not abandoned Assad, they also could not be seen to adopt a policy that was so obviously counter to the Islamic Awakening narrative they have become tied to. Doing so could be even more dangerous than losing Assad. It is for these reasons that Iran has insisted that the protests in Syria are the work of foreign interests and that Assad must remain in power in order to preserve the resistance against Israel. Characterizing the unrest in Syria in such a way has allowed Iranian leaders to simultaneously support Assad and maintain the viability of their Islamic Awakening narrative.
Though the inconsistency of the Iranian position is apparent, it is not remarkable. The events of the Arab Spring, and particularly the protracted conflict in Syria, have challenged the interests and values of all the countries in or interested in the Middle East. Iran is not the only one of these countries that has struggled to reconcile its national interests with the values and beliefs that its leaders use to justify their actions.
However, in Iran’s case, it is the regime, not just the leaders, who are threatened by an inability to align interests with beliefs. For while the fall of the Assad regime would be a significant blow to Iran’s ability to project power in the region, the damage done to its Islamic Awakening narrative might be even greater. The inability of Iran’s leaders to martial the ideological tenets of that narrative—Islamic values, Iranian independence, opposition to Western influence in the region, support for the fight against Israel—would represent a severe blow to the Islamic Republic itself.
*Annie Tracy Samuel is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of History at Tel Aviv University (TAU). She is also a junior research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, both at TAU. A version of this article was first published by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University in its Tel Aviv Notes series.