Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Iran's Strategy for Saving Asad

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Iran's Strategy for Saving Asad

Article excerpt

For decades, Iran has supported the regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria with military advisors, weapons, and both diplomatic and financial support due to Tehran's belief that a pro-Iranian government in Syria is a core national interest. In this regard, cooperation with Damascus has provided Tehran with a number of strategic advantages, which it is loath to surrender. More recently, the Iranians have also come to view Syria as a vital ally against the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In this environment, the Islamic Republic will likely continue to bolster the Asad regime even if the Syrian civil war continues for years.

Ba'thist Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been allies since shortly after the establishment of the Iranian revolutionary regime in early 1979. A variety of observers initially assumed that Iran's association with Syria was an alliance of convenience dictated by overlapping but potentially transient concerns such as joint opposition to Iraq under the late Saddam Husayn.1 The ideological gap between the Islamic Republic and a secular Arab republic such as Syria was sometimes considered too great to overcome in any long-term scenario.2 This assessment has now been proven incorrect, and the Syrian-Iranian alliance has remained durable and entrenched throughout the decades since the Iranian revolution.3 During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Syria even broke with Arab solidarity and became one of only two Arab states to back Tehran assertively with arms transfers, rhetoric, diplomacy, and other forms of support.4 At various times during the war, the Syrian-Iranian relationship became strained, and some of the conservative Arab countries even offered aid incentives to Damascus to adopt a more neutral stance on the conflict. Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad never saw it in his interest to do so, and the relationship with Iran remained strong.

Following the Iran-Iraq conflict, Damascus and Tehran continued to find themselves with a variety of complementary foreign policy interests and priorities on issues such as the future of Lebanon, maintaining a front of resistance to Israeli regional ambitions, and limiting Western influence in the Middle East.5 The death of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the rise of the much more pragmatic President 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani further improved the Syrian-Iranian working relationship.6 Additionally, as ably pointed out by Jubin Goodarzi, the cal between the two countries did not emerge as a significant problem so long as they retained similar regional goals.7 Rather, differing ideologies may have even worked in favor of the alliance since most contentious doctrinal differences over such issues did not come into play. As the alliance matured, Syrian-Iranian methods for resolving differences improved and the parties reached important understandings on working together to coordinate their influence and achieve overlapping goals. The alliance remained solid throughout the terms of multiple Iranian presidents and after Bashar al-Asad's assumption of Syria's presidency following his father's death in 2000.

The alliance between these two states faced one of its most serious challenges when the Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with massive peaceful demonstrations against the Asad regime that eventually morphed into an armed struggle after repeated confrontations between the demonstrators and security forces. Tehran's decision to support Damascus in this conflict has proven to be a dramatic and costly commitment. Iran is an important energy-producing state, but it has also suffered serious financial setbacks due to recent economic mismanagement during Mahmud Ahmadinejad's presidency as well as a series of US, European, and to a much lesser extent, United Nations economic sanctions imposed as a result of Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capability.8 Iran's middle class has been increasingly impoverished over time and voted overwhelmingly in the 2013 presidential election for a more pragmatic candidate, Hassan Rouhani, who promised to improve Iran's relations with the world munity and help to lift Western and other sanctions. …

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