Like a startled character in a Shakespearean play, Iran is beginning to wake up to a dramatically new Middle Eastern landscape. In a very short period of time, Tehran’s regional standing has taken a remarkable turn.
Less than two years ago, Iran’s firebrand President Mahmud Ahmadinejad went as far as Israel’s northern doorsteps, in the Lebanese border towns of Bint Jbeil and Qana, to express his
country’s unflinching support for the Hezbollah resistance movement.
Upon arriving in Beirut, as he exchanged handshakes with Lebanon’s top political leaders, the Iranian leader issued an ominous warning to his country’s arch-enemy, Israel, by stating, “We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime [Israel].” After 14 centuries, the Persians could again claim a strategic stronghold on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
It was a statement suffused with an affectionate display of solidarity as well as a reiteration of Iran’s political patronage. Moreover, it was a bold display of Iran’s growing confidence as the chieftain of a region-wide revisionist axis, bringing Damascus, Hamas, and Hezbollah under its ever-spreading wings.
Benefiting from record-high oil prices, Iran had enough petro-dollars not only to keep its traditional allies happy, but also to expand its ever-growing network of patronage across the region and as far as even Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Today, Iran is facing a radically different situation. The Arab uprisings have not turned the neighborhood any friendlier towards Iran. While post-revolutionary Arab republics are a cocktail of Sunni-based political Islam and pro-Western foreign policy, the Arab monarchies have become even more hostile towards the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, its economy is reeling from a barrage of sanctions, placing tremendous pressure on its currency and very ability to export its economic mainstay: oil.
Most crucially, as Syrian opposition forces struggle to hold on to Aleppo and expand their operations against the Syrian military, Iran is inching closer to losing its most important ally: the Bashar al-Assad regime.
A marriage made in heaven
In a chaotic region, where Iran finds itself surrounded by pro-Western and/or hostile Arab states as well as non-Arab strategic competitors such as Turkey and Pakistan, Syria has been a great exception.
In the early years of the Iranian regime, while most of the Arab world supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, the Syrians – wary of their Baathist competitor in Baghdad – chose to support Tehran in the eight-year imposed-war (Jang-e-Tahmili), providing crucial military hardware in exchange for petroleum products and growing strategic cooperation.
After the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, Syria remained as Iran’s sole regional ally, providing Tehran a gateway to the Levant region.
After the war, Iran sought the favor of Arab states – and the broader Islamic world – by taking on Israel. Subsequently, Tehran pro-actively supported a variety of Palestinian resistance movements (from the Palestine Liberation Army to Islamic Jihad and Hamas), while propping-up the Hezbollah group in Lebanon. Given Syria’s proximity to Israel, the Assad regime was crucial to Iran’s ability to project its influence in the Greater Middle East. Otherwise, Iran would have been confined to its immediate neighborhood.
Strategically, the two states have shared identical external posturing based on anti-Western, anti-Zionist principles. Although secular and Arab, Syria’s leadership is a natural ally for another reason: as Alawites – an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam – they share the same sectarian roots with the clerical leadership in Tehran.
For Damascus, Iran not only served as a great counter-weight to the Baathists in Baghdad (until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003), it also represented a significant source of economic and military aid, given Tehran’s relatively deep pockets and sophisticated military-industrial infrastructure.
Th golden year
eEarlier in 2010, when Assad (then affectionately referred to by his constituents as “Mahbub”, or the beloved) arranged a trilateral meeting to which he invited Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to discuss “threats” and issues of common interest.
At ease in the jovial company of his allies, and just fresh from his apparent “containment” of the so-called “Green opposition movement” back home, an inspired Ahmadinejad professed the emergence of a new Middle East “without Zionists and without colonialists, while calling on the West to stop ” … interfering in the region’s affairs, [and] to pack their things and leave” – a statement that sent his companions into a flurry of chuckles.
It was a very important meeting that underscored the extent of Iran’s influence in the Greater Middle East. Iran could finally claim that it had overcome decades of regional isolation.
There is no way of understating this apparent strategic victory when one considers Iran’s sobering national security dilemma: it has been surrounded by more than 40 American bases, a host of hostile anti-Iranian Sunni Arab states to the south, two nuclear-armed states to the east and to the north (namely, Pakistan and Russia), also to the north a pro-Israeli Azerbaijan, and a traditional competitor as well as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country to the northwest, Turkey.
Not to mention Iran’s support for the Palestinian cause – in a bid to gain support among the Arab populace and re-assert its revolutionary principles – has locked it into an intractable confrontation with the region’s most powerful country, Israel.
Thus, strategically, Syria has been “manna from heaven”. It has been central to Iran’s survival (especially during the nascent revolutionary years) and gradual regional rise in the last decade or so – a trend that has been reinforced by America’s elimination of Iraq’s Saddam regime.
Overall, 2010 was an auspicious year for Iran. While consolidating its leadership of the so-called axis of resistance, Iran intensified its bilateral relationship with rising powers such as Turkey and Brazil. By April, Ankara and Brasilia brokered a historic “nuclear swap deal” with Iran, the so-called “Tehran Declaration”, to alley Western fears vis-a-vis the country’s burgeoning nuclear program.
When the West turned down the deal, both Turkey and Brazil went as far as voting against a United Nations Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on Tehran and its nuclear program.
By the end of the year, things got even more interesting for Iran. One by one, Arab autocracies – aligned to the West – fell apart. As revolutions swept through the Arab world, beginning in Tunisia then spreading to Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, Iran was finally witnessing the birth of a new Middle East. The Islamic Republic was jubilant, characterizing the Arab Spring as an “Islamic Awakening”.
Ideationally, Tehran touted its own 1979 revolution as the guiding inspiration of the Arab uprisings. Strategically, Iran reveled in the gradual demise of pro-West autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. Bahrain’s predominantly Shi’ite-led revolution against the Sunni “El-Khalifa” monarchy – a client of Saudi Arabia and a Western ally – provided Iran with a perfect opportunity to assert its (quasi-sectarian) revolutionary leadership in the Persian Gulf.
When troops of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC – which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar) stormed into Bahrain to crush the uprising, Iran valiantly stood by the revolutionaries and warned the Arab monarchs against violating the sovereignty of a neighboring nation and the repression of a popular democratic movement.
The tide turns
However, 2011 would prove to become a rollercoaster year for Iran. By March, Iran’s most important regional ally, Syria, emerged as the next victim of a transnational Arab uprising. Initially, confident in the pillars of the Assad regime, Tehran viewed growing pockets of protests as a momentary phenomenon. After all, the Syrian leadership itself failed to notice the depth of discontent amongst the public, thus refusing to contemplate structural democratic reform.
Failing to capitalize on Assad’s popularity and charisma, the regime shunned entering into a meaningful dialogue with the broad spectrum of opposition groups – within and outside the country – and institute consequential democratic reforms to appease the legitimate demands of its people for a pluralistic-democratic system.
After years of aggressive economic liberalization, many in Syria noticed the meteoric rise of a cadre of new elites close to the regime who benefited from favorable privatization schemes and preferential business-and-trade contracts.
So, in addition to lingering concerns with the lack of sufficient democratic space within a one-party system, a combination of declining subsidies, growing employment insecurity, a rollback of state-owned enterprises, deteriorating state services, widening inequality, and festering corruption added to the broader popular discontent against the regime.
However, it was ultimately the regime’s increasingly indiscriminate use of force to quash the protests that radicalized the opposition and provided hostile Sunni Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf as well as a myriad of radical Sunni groups – with the prominent participation of al-Qaeda – with a perfect opportunity to “internationalize” the Syrian revolution.
Gradually, as the opposition forces, most especially the Free Syrian Army (FSA), gained growing logistical-financial and diplomatic support from regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian uprising morphed into a combination of a domestic sectarian “civil war” – between pro-regime Alawite and minority groups, on one hand, and the majority Sunni population, on the other – as well as a broader proxy conflict between two camps: you have Iran, Russia, and China supporting the Assad regime, while Turkey, GCC countries, and the West side with the opposition.
Unlike the “lightning” revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian uprising has replicated a “slow-motion disintegration” of the Syrian nation-state. With almost 20,000 civilians killed, and hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country, there is just so much blood on the hands of opposing parties.
The whole country is practically in a state of war, and the regime has resorted to brutal siege tactics and carpet bombardment to crush opposition strongholds. The opposition – increasingly radicalized and infiltrated by extremist elements such as the al-Qaeda – has been returning the favor by targeting centers of powers, ranging from government offices to individual military units spread across the country.
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s six-point plan never stood a chance because neither the opposition – from the Free Syrian Army to the Syrian National Council and its many offshoots – nor the regime was willing to make necessary political concessions. The Syrian uprising has become a “battle to the death”.
Recent months have witnessed a decisive turn in the balance of forces. For sometime, the opposition has been particularly strong in the center and south, but it is also beginning to erode the regime’s control over the country’s most important cities: Aleppo and Damascus.
After the successful assassination of Syria top security officials, defense minister Dawoud Rajha and his deputy, Assef Shawkat (Assad’s brother-in-law), the opposition forces are beginning to wrest control of Aleppo from the regime, while clashes in certain neighborhoods of the very capital continue. Meanwhile, the regime is experiencing a flurry of “high-profile” defections, ranging from top diplomats in Baghdad and London to Brigadar Manaf Tlas as well as the Aleppo parliamentarian Ikhlas Badawi.
End game approaching
For years, the Iranian regime’s opposition to the West and Israel earned it tremendous popularity on the Arab street. However, its support for the Assad regime has severely undermined this trend. Iran is being accused of not only supporting a brutal dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands of his own citizens, but also acting as an impediment to the democratization of an Arab nation.
Iran’s continuous logistical, economic, and political support has been crucial to the survival of the Syrian regime, however as the opposition gains increasing control over the country – and as the international pressure on the regime grows – the imminent downfall of Assad becomes ever more likely.
Either the regime itself will sacrifice Assad to save its own skin (akin to how the Egyptian Army dispensed with Mubarak to retain its own power), or the opposition will continue to benefit from the inflow of increasingly advanced armaments and defections within the regime’s ranks to eventually override the regime.
Today, Iran faces the stark choice of letting go of Assad to preserve a friendly regime or desperately stand by him and risk the possibility of confronting a hostile, post-Assad revolutionary state. It might be too late for Iran to reach out to the opposition and win their hearts.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Phillipines-based foreign affairs analyst specializing on Iran and international security.
(Copyright 2012 Richard Javad Heydarian)
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