x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iran sees an existential threat in Syria's popular uprisings

Iran's leaders are worried about the demonstrations in Syria, and the possible fall of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. For reasons great and small, their concerns are valid.

The Iranian government is worried about the demonstrations in Syria, and the possible fall of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

Such concerns are valid.

The Assad family has been a staunch ally of the Islamic Republic since the early 1980s. The fall of Mr Al Assad could have numerous negative implications for Iran's government in terms of foreign policy influence. First and foremost is the question of access to millions of dollars worth of investment in Syria, in sectors ranging from agriculture, tourism and auto manufacturing, which could all be lost.

This is in addition to the possible closure of Syrian territory as a transit point to supply weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon. Mr Al Assad's fall could also mean Syria will cease to host groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad on its soil.

And foreign policy concerns regarding the loss of Syria are not confined to Iranian conservatives. Reformists such as Hojjatoeslam Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who more than any other Iranian official helped establish Hizbollah in the early 1980s from Iran's embassy in Damascus, are also likely to share these concerns.

The Iranian government is worried by the fact that instead of exporting the 1979 revolution in line with Ayatollah Khomeini's dream, the 2009 Green revolution is being exported instead.

Signs of such concern were witnessed in a speech given by Ahmad Mousavi, Iran's current ambassador to Syria, at a seminar entitled "Review of Islamic Awakening and The Fight Against Sedition", which took place in Damascus on March 26.

According to Mr Mousavi, the Syrian uprising is "version two of the 2009 seditious movement of Iran". The term "seditious" is used by the Iranian government to describe the supporters of the Green movement, who poured onto to the streets to demonstrate after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial election in June 2009.

To Mr Mousavi, both the Syrian uprising and Iran's in 2009 hadforeign, especially "Zionist" origins and backing. This part of Mr Mousavi's theory was backed by Iran's most powerful man, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, earlier this month.

What is interesting about the other part of Mr Mousavi's analysis is that his suspicion is based on anti-Hizbollah chants that according to him were heard in the Syrian city of Deraa. To Mr Mousavi, they are the continuation of the chant "no to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran" which was recited in 2009 by Iranian demonstrators. What also seems to have concerned Mr Mousavi are anti-Iranian chants by Syrian demonstrators.

Slogans aside, what is probably really worrying Iran's leaders behind closed doors is that Hizbollah is becoming a rallying call for Tehran's opponents, rather than mobilising support among its allies.

There are also domestic concerns. The implications inside Iran of events in Syria for Iran's leaders could be far greater than any other uprising in the Arab Spring.

This is due to a number of factors; most importantly, politically speaking, Syria has more in common with Iran than any other country in the Middle East where the Arab Spring has arrived.

Both countries have strained relations with the US and are anti-Israeli. Iran has long seen Syria as its staunch ally in the "resistance camp". At the start of the Arab Spring, Iranian officials described this virtue as one of the reasons why their government, unlike those of Egypt and Tunisia, was "backed by the people" and is therefore stable.

What Iran's leaders really meant to say, but didn't do so openly, was that having no relations with the US is useful for their stability, as it allows them to abuse human rights without much concern. Since they have no formal relations, Washington can't pressure them. This was in direct contrast to Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, against whom the US used its bilateral relations to pressure them to step aside.

But these days, being a member of the "resistance camp" does not seem to be saving the Assad regime. If one day Iranian demonstrators decide to return to the streets in force, having bad or no relations with the US may not be enough to save the regime.

The other reason is the familiarity of Iranians with Syria. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been to Syria on pilgrimages and on holiday. Some have also worked there. This familiarity will mean that the fall of Mr Al Assad would have a personal resonance with people in Iran, more than any other place in the Middle East. Those who support the regime will become more worried, thus causing their loyalty to wane. And those who oppose it will see it as personal source of inspiration. If their Syrian friends could do it, they could as well.

Foreign policy is important to Iran's leaders. But their number one goal is and always will be domestic stability.

Iran's leadership knows that its public is watching events in Syria. Revolution and democracy there could set a precedent for the people of Iran. Iran's leaders wish to avoid that. This is one of the main reasons why they are dispatching help to Mr Al Assad to crush the demonstrations, and will continue to do so for as long as possible.

 

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and the co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran