As Iran lines up with Shiites its desire to keep Sunnis onside becomes more precarious. Michael Theodoulou reports
Iran walks a tightrope on its support for Hizbollah
When Hizbollah fighters led the pro-government forces that retook the town of Qusayr after a two-week siege early last month, Tehran basked in the reflected glory, acclaiming their success as a turning point in the civil war in favour of the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.
Despite its public praise for its Lebanese Shiite ally, however, Hizbollah’s military intervention in Syria in support of Mr Al Assad poses big political risks for Tehran – not the least of which is that it enables rival Sunni Gulf Arab states to claim that Tehran is inflaming sectarian tensions across the volatile region, analysts say.
Recent opinion polls show plummeting support for Iran and Hizbollah in Sunni-majority countries.Their approval ratings had already started declining after the Iranian government’s crackdown after the 2009 elections, from a peak three years earlier when Hizbollah fought Israel’s more technologically advanced forces to a standstill in Lebanon.
Tehran’s support for Hizbollah deployment in Syria and its backing for the Assad regime have become the “nail in the coffin of Iran’s favourable rating in the region”, according to James Zogby, a US-based pollster and president of the Arab American Institute.
Iran has obvious geopolitical and strategic motives for bolstering Mr Al Assad. His replacement by a Sunni-dominated government hostile to Tehran would be a severe blow to the Islamic republic, cutting supply lines to Hizbollah and crippling its ability to project power in the Middle East and maintain a proxy presence on Israel’s northern border.
But Hizbollah’s entry into the war has put a sectarian tinge on Tehran’s alliance with Mr Assad, according to Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London
“Iran’s foreign policy is not sectarian by design,” Mr Hokayem said. “It has elements of sectarianism that are now highlighted by Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria.”
Anoush Ehteshami, an Iran expert at Durham University in England, agreed.
“Iran argues its position on Syria tallies with that of Russia which, like Tehran, has a strategic interest in the Syrian regime surviving. By tying it to Russia, Iran is trying to demystify the question of Syria being a sectarian issue,” said Mr Ehteshami.
“It wasn’t very clever of Iran to use Hizbollah, because that really does back up the sectarian argument.”
Iran has long cast itself as the protector of Shiites around the world, including Syria’s ruling Alawites, adherents of an offshoot of Shiism who make up 10 per cent of the population in the predominantly Sunni country.
In practice though, geopolitical considerations have historically been the main factor in determining whether Iran provides support to fellow Shiites.
Iran, for instance, largely stood by when Saudi Arabia, its main regional rival, sent troops to Bahrain in 2011 to help the Sunni-led government there crush pro-democracy protests by the emirate’s majority Shiite community. Iran has also supported Christian Armenia in its long dispute with mainly Shiite Azerbaijan.
While presenting himself as a champion of “oppressed” Shiites in the region and beyond, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, also portrayed himself as a pan-Islamic leader. He knew that stressing Iran’s Shiite character would alienate the wider worldwide Muslim community, 85 per cent of whom are Sunnis.
Similarly, the current supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has played down the sectarian dimension in Syria’s civil war and warned against making the unrest in Bahrain a Sunni-Shiite issue.
“There exists no Sunni-Shiite conflict,” he proclaimed in March.
Yet Hizbollah’s decision to shift away from the main target of its ire – Israel – and enter a war mainly among Muslims in a mainly Muslim country has altered perceptions across the region, spurring some influential Sunni clerics to play the sectarian card and setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In late May, the influential Qatar-based Islamist preacher, Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, urged Sunnis from around the Middle East to go to Syria to join the battle against the Assad regime. The Egyptian-born cleric claimed that Iran and Hizbollah – which he branded the “Party of Satan” – want “continued massacres to kill Sunnis”.
Before Syria’s civil war, Gulf Arab states had little success in selling to their people the idea that there was a Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region, said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group. “But the Arab masses became much more receptive to that argument when they saw Assad butchering Sunnis, arguably with the support of the Iranians,” he said.
Hizbollah and extremist Sunni fighters linked to Al Qaeda have emerged as the strongest militias on opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.
Mr Hokayem said that while Gulf Arab states were “playing up the sectarian dimension”, they “truly believe that Iran, Hizbollah and the Assad regime are primarily motivated by hatred against the Sunnis”.
Iran, in turn, maintains that Gulf Arab and western support for the Syrian rebels is designed to break its “axis of resistance” with Syria and Hizbollah for the benefit of Israel.
Also, given Tehran’s decades-old strategic relationship with the secular Assad regime, Iran has an “overwhelming need to show that when Iran has an alliance, it means something”, said Richard Dalton, a British former ambassador to Tehran.
Central to that alliance is Iran’s commitment to protect historic Shiite holy sites in Syria. At the top of that list of landmarks is the gold-domed shrine near Damascus of Sayida Zeinab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed.
“Iran has spent millions in restoring these shrines and genuinely feels that if it abandons them, Salafis will destroy them,” Mr Ehteshami said.
Iran’s support for Mr Al Assad’s regime also has a defensive element. The Syrian conflict has galvanised radical Sunni groups in Iraq to challenge once again the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which has friendly relations with Tehran.
Thousands of Iraqi Shiites, meanwhile, have poured into Syria to fight alongside Mr Al Assad’s forces, raising fears that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are now merging.
On the diplomatic front, Iran’s key interest is securing a place at a mooted multinational peace conference on Syria in Geneva in the coming weeks. Tehran’s intention is to ensure that if Mr Assad’s regime is ousted, its successor will not undermine Iran’s vital interests in the region and beyond.
“Iran seems quite relaxed about negotiating some form of transitional arrangement in Syria where the final outcome would be uncertain,” Mr Dalton said. “Their prime interest is in having a government in Syria they can work with, rather than having Shiites rule the country.”
There are hopes Iran’s relatively moderate president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, will be able to tamp down sectarian tensions in the region after he takes office next week. Following his election last month, he proclaimed that a top priority would be mending relations with Saudi Arabia.
He also contrasted his country’s denunciations of Bahrain with Iran’s stance on Syria. “We should not describe as oppressive brutal actions in an enemy country while refraining from calling the same actions oppressive if they take place in a friendly country,” he said.
“Brutality must be called brutality.”