The pressure on Syria's Bashar al-Assad continues to build as the international community watches for signs that he might finally be weakening. But outside of Syria's borders, the country which may have the most riding on the fate of the Assad regime may be Syria's last and best ally, Iran.
Assad's situation has steadily grown more precarious. Just this week, the Hama province attorney general announced that he has resigned from Assad's regime in protest to violent crackdowns against the Syrian people. Also this week, the United States levied increased sanctions against the regime's top leaders as Europe continued to work out ways to cut off its energy sector. But perhaps the most striking action regarding the regime's longevity may have come from Iran, whose recent pronouncements have displayed an almost uncomfortable desperation, according to veteran observers of the region. [Read more about how the United States and Europe called for Assad to step down.]
For years, Syria has been essential to Iran's interests in the region, particularly its support for Hezbollah, a political and militant group in Lebanon, and Hamas, a political party in the Gaza Strip. For example, Syria's been a crucial conduit for Iran to get arms and other supplies into the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas, according to Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based foreign affairs think-tank. "Iranians need a Syrian government," she says.
And for Syria, Iran has been an important economic partner as well. Iran accounts for as much as 10 percent of foreign direct investment in Syria, according to David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, another Washington-based research group. In addition to joint ventures like banks, Iran has high-profile assets like auto factories, a cement plant, and an oil refinery in Syria, all of which rely on the stability of the Assad regime. Leaders in the two nations also share theological ties, as Shiite Muslims, and a mutual distaste for the West. "You've got this military relationship. You've got this economic relationship," says Schenker. "And they're ideological fellow travelers, in that they both can agree that diminished U.S. influence in the Middle East is a good thing." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]
Given this relationship, the survival of Assad is key for Iran as it continues to assert itself in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. However, with the rest of the world turned against Assad, Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah find themselves in an awkward place, says Schenker. For one, while Iran has been severely critical of other countries like Israel for violence within their borders, it's kept mostly mum about the brutal crackdowns carried out by Assad's regime. And while has turned a blind eye on Assad's attacks on Syrian protesters, it has supported the protesters in all the region's other revolutionary movements this year, like in Egypt and Tunisia, where the previous leaders had been at odds with Iran.
Iran, however, may be feeling the heat of its apparent hypocrisy. Late last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi rather softly called on Assad to listen to his people. "The government should answer to the demands of its people, be it Syria, Yemen, or other countries," Mr. Salehi said, according to an Iranian news agency. "The people of these nations have legitimate demands, and the governments should answer these demands as soon as possible."
According to Schenker, such a statement is no real threat to its ally Assad, but more for appearances' sake among the rest of the region. . "It's a pretty strong statement from them, because obviously Tehran themselves, the clerical regime in Iran, has no moral qualms with mowing down their own people. That they should be calling on the Syrians to reform is laughable," says Schenker. "It really points to not only their discomfort, but their concern that this regime is heading toward collapse."
But recent statements from other countries, which have aimed to pressure Assad out, or at the least toward reform, Iran's goal is the opposite. "Probably the greatest fear that Iran has at this point is that if Assad does not show some flexibility, his regime will be overthrown," Ottaway says. "So, it's not for reform, but its need for the survival of the regime."
If the regime does fall, Schenker says, that could be the first win geopolitically for the West over Iran since the start of the Arab Spring. When leaders like Hosni Mubarek in Egypt or Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia fell, for example, the United States and the West lost allies. The same could arguably be said for Muammar Qadhafi in Libya when he ultimately retreats. After all, while the West eventually sided with the popular opposition in each of those cases, the ousted leaders had long been stable strategic allies for western nations, particularly against Iran.
But, the same isn't true with Syria. If Assad falls, the loss would certainly be Iran's. [Read: 7 Challenges for a Post Qadhafi Libya.]
"Its close ties to Hezbollah, its close ties to Syria, [and] its close ties to Hamas have essentially given it a Mediterranean presence, which is terribly troubling to many of the Lebanese, as well as to Israel, as well as to Jordan and Egypt," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional security programs at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based policy research firm. "So, anything that undermines Iran's Mediterranean strategy would be seen as a great plus for the United States and its friends."
- Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.
- Read: 7 Challenges for a Post-Qadhafi Libya.
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