Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in exile in Najaf from 1964, decided to leave Iraq in 1978 to escape pressure from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. He was advised to go to Syria, also Ba’athist but hostile to Saddam; instead he chose France. Nonetheless, Syria, governed by the Assads since 1970, became a strategic ally of the Islamic Republic, to its financial, military and economic advantage.
A number of factors contributed to the alliance. In 1978, when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords ahead of the peace treaty between
Egypt and Israel, President Hafez al-Assad began looking for a new partner to replace
Egypt. In September 1980 he became an indispensable ally of Tehran after condemning
Iraq’s invasion of Iran, unlike the Gulf ruling families.
” Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, says he is prepared to mediate in the Syrian conflict. So is the strategic relationship between Damascus and Tehran under threat, and could Iran be preparing to withdraw its support from Bashar al-Assad? “
The foundation of Hizbullah in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982 strengthened
the alliance, since Iranian arms shipments to Hizbullah had to pass through Syria. As a
sign of the importance of the relationship, only ambassadors to Damascus were directly
appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Their subsequent careers confirm this: after returning to Iran, two former ambassadors, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari and Hossein Moussavi, worked in the Supreme Leader’s cabinet and abandoned their foreign ministry careers.
Mohammad Khatami’s election as president in 1997 weakened the links between Iran
and Hizbullah, as Iranian reformers tried to normalise relations with the Gulf states.
During a visit to Lebanon in April 2002, Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi,
called on Hizbullah to show greater restraint (1), prompting its secretary-general Hassan
Nasrallah to complain to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Relations between the
Iranian embassy in Beirut and Hizbullah were so strained at the time that dealings with
Hizbullah were entrusted to the Revolutionary Guards.
But Khatami’s reformist government was thwarted in its efforts to normalise international
relations by George W Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil” in January 2002.
The US government rejected the November 2004 nuclear agreement signed by the foreign
ministers of France, the UK and Germany and Hassan Rohani – then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council – which involved the suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.
This hardening of positions contributed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as
president in 2005. Iran’s security forces and Revolutionary Guards strengthened their grip on the management of regional relations, and support for Hizbullah grew stronger, as did relations with the Syrian regime, weakened and isolated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri (of which the US and France accused Damascus).
With the “Arab Spring” in 2011, Iran’s regional policy moved into uncharted territory.
Iran tried to give credence to the idea that these uprisings were inspired by its own revolution, and Islamists coming to power were presented as the fulfilment of Ayatollah Khamenei’s prediction of an “Islamic awakening”. But Iran, which had repressed its own opponents two years earlier, denounced the insurrection in Syria, claiming it had been manipulated by the West or by Israel, even though it supported the revolutions in Tunisia Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
This paradoxical situation continued for a year, until Iran decided to modify its stance
and envisage the possibility of a solution in Syria that did not involve Bashar al-Assad.
The government initiated a dialogue with the Syrian opposition and began to play the role
The development is partly explained by Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally
of the US. This rivalry has taken a confessional turn: Iran supports Hizbullah and other Shia militant groups, while Saudi Arabia favours Salafist and Sunni jihadist groups. This has
widened the divide between populations that until recently lived in relative harmony
in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Moreover, the various Salafist groups are targeting Shias,
while Shia political organisations such as Hizbullah see Salafism and its jihadist branch
as their principal enemy, and accuse them of inaction vis-à-vis Israel.
But the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot just be reduced to a religious or
Shia/Sunni sectarian standoff. Iran supported the “Arab Springs” and Sunni Islamists in
Tunisia and Egypt, and has moved closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia
has condemned it and backed the July coup against President Mohammed Morsi. And Iran
is allied with Syria even though the Assad regime’s principles are far removed from those
of Islamic revolution: the alliance is based on geopolitical interests, not religion.
Iran’s foreign policy, normally the prerogative of the Supreme Leader, would normally
not have been scrutinised during the 2013 presidential election campaign. But the official
consensus was mindful of the international sanctions imposed on Iran after successive
UN resolutions and of the country’s growing isolation in the region. Rohani, as the candidate most critical of his predecessor’s diplomatic record, was able to score many points.
In his first televised speech after his June election, Iran’s new president, familiar with
the workings of security and foreign policy, promised to improve relations with Saudi
Arabia, reviving Khatami’s strategy. Rohani, who, as a member of the Supreme National
Security Council, had signed a security agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1998, referred
to the country as a “friend and brother” of Iran (2), and the Iranian and Saudi media talked of Rohani visiting Saudi Arabia for the Haj, to which King Abdallah had invited him.
The methods of the new president’s cabinet and statements by his foreign minister,
Mohammad Javad Zarif, attest to the change.
In a 5 September tweet, Zarif wished Jews around the world a happy New Year. Then, in
an exchange with Christine Pelosi, daughter of the former speaker of the US House of
Representatives, he said Iran had never denied the Holocaust, adding “the man who was
perceived to be denying it is now gone,” a reference to Ahmadinejad.
Rohani wants international pressure and sanctions on Iran to decrease in the hope of
restarting the economy, which according to a recent parliament-government audit has
shrunk by 5.6% this year. (Ahmadinejad claimed it had grown by 6%.) In his drive for
what he calls détente with the West, Rohani is breaking taboos: he has managed to neutralise opposition among the Revolutionary Guards and win the support of the Supreme Leader, who has hailed Rohani’s “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy (3). The nuclear issue, which has been entrusted to the foreign ministry, probably offers the most scope for opening up to the West. For the first time, Rohani, has recognised that time is running out for Tehran, as it is for the West (4). There are signs that Iran could envisage other scenarios for Syria, too. On 29 August, Naeimeh Eshraghi, granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted on her Facebook page a statement by former president Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani on the use of poison gas in the suburbs of Damascus: “A government
that uses chemical weapons against its own people will suffer grave consequences.”
Later, a video of a speech by Rafsanjani in the town of Savakou, in which he says that “the
Syrian people have been chemically attacked”, appeared on the Web (5). Rafsanjani has not denied this statement outright.
Another sign of change was a statement on 13 September by Sardar Alaei, a former
commander of the Revolutionary Guards and armed forces chief of staff: “Unfortunately,
since the Syrian situation has arisen, anti- Iranian sentiment has been growing among
the peoples of the Arab world. The question everyone asks us now is ‘Why do you, who
believe in democracy, support the despotic regime in Syria?’ It’s a question many of those
who played a part in the upheavals of the last three years in Arab countries ask continually… It diminishes Iran’s influence on Arab thought
Alaei was one of the first major Iranian figures to talk of a policy change on Syria.
A year earlier, in an interview with Iranian Diplomacy, a website run by former Iranian
ambassador to France Sadegh Kharrazi, he said that most opponents of the current
Syrian regime saw Assad’s departure as an opportunity for real reform in Syria, and that
Iran, too, was beginning to envisage a Syria without him (7).
Not everyone agrees. Qassem Sleymain, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-
Quds force, has said Iran would support Syria “to the end” (8).
There is a popular saying in Tehran: “The Shia clergy have waited 1,400 years [since the
birth of Islam] to take power, and they won’t let go of it easily.” The response to the crises of the last 30 years shows how adaptable Iranians can be. The Islamic Republic has withstood the war with Iraq, internal opposition and international sanctions. In 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini rejected UN Security council resolution 598, calling for an end to the war with Iraq, and said accepting it would be “an act of disobedience to the Prophet of Islam.”
But a few days later he changed his mind, since rejecting the resolution would have prolonged the conflict and isolated his country.
In 1987, while the war with Iraq was still in progress, Khomeini had said that though he
might forget the issue of Jerusalem, or even Saddam Hussein, he would never forgive the
behaviour of the Saudi royal family, with whom Iran must never re-establish relations.
Yet in December 1991, President Hashemi Rafsanjani met Prince Abdallah, heir apparent
to the Saudi throne.
Iran has a choice: either give its unconditional support to Assad and help him continue the
war, or change its regional policy, while protecting its interests. During the Lebanese
crisis of 2006-08, Iran gave Hizbullah a green light to sign the Doha agreement brokered by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which provided a way out of the crisis and made it possible to hold elections. Iran also supported the 1989 Taif accord that ended the long civil war in Lebanon, having first assured itself that Hizbullah would be allowed to keep its weapons while the other militias were disarmed.
Is such a scenario possible? A long war of attrition in Syria looks increasingly bad for
the Iranian economy, which is already weak – among other aid, Iran pays the wages of
Syria’s armed forces. Continuing the conflict could diminish Iran’s influence, prevent a
rapprochement with the Arab states and even lead to a crisis with Turkey, which Iran has
managed to avoid since the revolution.
Much depends on the Geneva 2 talks planned by the US and Russia between Damascus and the Syrian opposition, and the role Iran is able to play in them. Iran will seek guarantees that the eviction of its protégés from Damascus will not leave the field open to Salafist forces and turn the Shia/Sunni standoff once and for all into a major rift in the Middle East. The conflict with Israel would be overshadowed, and post-Saddam Iraq, as an ally of Iran, would see Sunni opposition grow even stronger. For the moment, Iran seems to have adopted a wait-and-see policy, restating its interest in taking part in the Geneva 2 process in the hope that an end to the conflict will help it avoid a strategic defeat.
TRANSLATED BY CHARLES GOULDEN
(1) Speech on 12 April 2002.
(2) Islamic Republic News Agency, quoted by BBC
Monitoring Service, London, 19 September 2013.
(3) Quoted by BBC Monitoring Service, London, 17 June
2013. The expression refers to Imam Hasan ibn Ali, who in
AD 661 signed an accord with his enemy.
(4) Interview on Iranian television, 10 September 2013,
quoted by BBC Monitoring Service, London,
18 September 2013.
(5) Radio Free Europe; www.rferl.mobi
(6) Daily newspaper Sharq, Tehran, 14 September 2013.
(7) 4 September 2012; www.irdiplomacy.ir
(8) Fars Agency, 4 September 2013, quoted by BBC
Monitoring Service, London, 4 September 2013.
Journalist & researcher
Specialist on Middle east political issues
from: Le Monde Diplomatique