UPDATES

Is Iran abandoning Assad?

Sep 1, 2011 | Tzvi Fleischer

Is Iran abandoning Assad?
news_item/0829-world-odu-syria_full_600.jpg

Is Iran starting to pull back from Syria’s Assad regime, its closest ally, as the unrest and bloodshed in Syria continues?

Ostensibly, there are some signs that Teheran is, at least verbally, starting to create a bit of distance from Damascus.

Firstly, Iran’s Foreign Minister publicly suggested Syria should meet the “legitimate demands” of the protestors. Then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on television that “the [Syrian] people should have the right to elect and get their freedoms” (Of course, that’s utterly hypocritical coming from him, given the events following the election of 2009, but that doesn’t mean it’s not politically significant).

In addition, the Iran regime has reportedly start reaching out to the Syrian opposition, meeting with representatives in a European capital – and  with even the leader of Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah also getting in on the act.

So what explains this sudden change of behaviour, given that Iran has been backing Assad to the hilt up until now, with widespread reports that Iranian forces are prominently involved in helping the Syria regime with its bloody crackdown on protestors?

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it is most likely tactical, and for public consumption only:

The violence and brutality in Syria has escalated to such a level that Iran has become forced to acknowledge it publicly. But I am sure that in private the Iranians have offered Assad their unequivocal support and they’ve advised him not to compromise and not to reform… Given how crucial the Syrian-Iranian relationship is to Iran, I am sure that Tehran is offering everything it possibly can to buoy Assad, whether it’s intelligence support, or technological aid to help jam the Internet, whether it is material support in the form of weaponry.

Meanwhile, noted Israeli analyst Barry Rubin sees two plausible possible explanations:

  • Iran is worried about being isolated from Sunni Muslims, who are the large majority in the region, since this group is overwhelmingly supporting revolution in Syria. By being seen as too Shia Muslim, Iran’s regime could lose its bid to be the leader of revolutionary Islamism in the Middle East. Already, Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group, has come out against the Syrian regime and is moving into the Egyptian (Muslim Brotherhood) orbit. That argument makes sense.
  • Iran’s leaders think that the regime of dictator-President Bashar al-Assad is going to fall and don’t want to be on the losing side. That argument makes sense also. Let’s remember that Iran has good intelligence assets in Syria so they would know what they are talking about. Two months ago, Israeli intelligence changed its assessment to predict Assad’s downfall.

There is some evidence for Rubin’s first possibility, with a story from the Wall Street Journal‘s Farnaz Fassihi (which also appeared in The Australian) noting,

Iran’s steadfast support for Syria’s regime has rapidly eroded Tehran’s credibility among Arabs, leaving the country with a foreign-policy dilemma as popular uprisings mount across the region.

Supporting President Bashar al-Assad will further diminish Tehran’s already troubled standing in the region, political analysts say. But abandoning him would crumble Iran’s platform in Syria.

“They’ve lost a lot of soft power and credibility, and the situation in Syria makes it worse,” said Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are new revolutions and heroes to look up to in the Middle East, and Iran is passé.”

There is some empirical evidence to support the claim by Salem and others that Iran’s popularity on the Arab Street is now waning. A recent study by the Arab America Institute found that over the past few years:

Iran’s favorability has plummeted from the 70-90 percent range among Arab countries to a current range of 10-40%, with the average favorability rating at just 27.5%. Of the six countries surveyed – Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – only Lebanon’s, at 63%, has a majority favorability rating…

In any case, it appears that the Iranian verbal shift on Syria is probably good news. It may mean that Teheran has become convinced, based on presumably good intelligence, that the Assad regime is unlikely to survive, and is therefore hedging its bets. Or it may mean that the Iranian regime has recognised that the Arab Spring is not going at all the way they had hoped – not moving the region into Iran’s sphere of influence, but instead doing the opposite. And thus in an attempt to retain some credibility on the Arab Street, Teheran is verbally distancing itself from its oldest and most strategically important ally.

Of course, if this last is the case, it is not necessarily because liberalism and democracy have won or are winning the day across the Middle East. As Barry Rubin suggested in an earlier piece, it more likely simply reflects a new division in the Middle East between Shi’ite and Sunni Islamists, neither of whom are amenable to either democracy or liberalism, and both of whom are irredeemably hostile to both the West and Israel.

For some evidence of this reality, a good essay on the growing dominance of the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt comes from Eric Trager of the Washington Institute.

Tzvi Fleischer

 

Tags:

RELATED ARTICLES


The Abaham Accords normalising relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain (later joined by Sudan and Morocco) were signed on the White House lawn on Sept. 15, 2020. What has happened in the two years since then? (Photo: Flickr)

Two years of the Abraham Accords

Sep 21, 2022 | Update
A homemade gun captured by police when they arrested a Palestinian man from Nablus preparing to carry out a mass casualty terror attack in Jaffa on Sept. 8, 2022 (Photo Credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

Fears of West Bank unrest amidst PA succession struggle

Sep 9, 2022 | Update
Under the proposed deal "Iran’s nuclear program is largely on track; its missile and terrorism programs are untouched. The only hope for those who fear a nuclear-empowered Iran is that the Iranians may say no" to the deal being offered by the Biden Administration (Image: Belus, Shutterstock)

New Iran nuclear deal imminent?

Aug 30, 2022 | Update
Author Salman Rushdie, stabbed and severely injured last weekend in the US, with the novel The Satanic Verses, which led to an Iranian fatwa demanding his death, and ultimately this attack (Images: Creative Commons)

Iran and the Attack on Salman Rushdie/ Abbas’ Holocaust Controversy

Aug 19, 2022 | Update
Israeli soldiers are seen near the border with the Gaza Strip Aug. 5, 2022. The IDF is confident that the three-day operation achieved its limited goals (Photo: Israel Defense Forces)

Post-mortems on “Operation Breaking Dawn”

Aug 12, 2022 | Update
Palestinians rally in Rafah to commemorate murdered PA critic Nizar Banat, beaten to death by PA security forces in June 2021 (Photo: Anas-Mohammed, Shutterstock).

Deteriorating Palestinian human rights under PA and Hamas

Aug 2, 2022 | Update

SIGN UP FOR AIJAC EMAILS

RECENT POSTS

Image: Isranet

Deconstruction Zone: The Joy of Concrete 

President in waiting? Mahmoud Abbas’ designated successor Hussein al-Sheikh (Image: Twitter)

A successor to Abbas?

Golda Meir: A complex woman who succeeded in Israeli politics at a time when it was grossly sexist, but refused to term herself a feminist (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Biblio File: Gold Meir, Feminist?

Then Israeli PM Naftali Bennett with Bahraini leaders: Who could have predicted how far relations would progress in security and economic terms in two short years (Image: Flickr)

Two years of transformation

The status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is outdated and unjust, but a clash of values makes it impossible to change (Image: Shutterstock)

Essay: A Clash of Worldviews

Image: Isranet

Deconstruction Zone: The Joy of Concrete 

President in waiting? Mahmoud Abbas’ designated successor Hussein al-Sheikh (Image: Twitter)

A successor to Abbas?

Golda Meir: A complex woman who succeeded in Israeli politics at a time when it was grossly sexist, but refused to term herself a feminist (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Biblio File: Gold Meir, Feminist?

Then Israeli PM Naftali Bennett with Bahraini leaders: Who could have predicted how far relations would progress in security and economic terms in two short years (Image: Flickr)

Two years of transformation

The status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is outdated and unjust, but a clash of values makes it impossible to change (Image: Shutterstock)

Essay: A Clash of Worldviews

SORT BY TOPICS