United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

The Impact of Syria’s Unrest on Iran

Jubin Goodarzi

  • What role is Iran playing in the Syrian political crisis?
In April, the United State claimed that Tehran has been helping Damascus put down the Syrian uprising. Two rounds of U.S. sanctions on Syria for human rights abuses have since named Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) for a role in the bloody crackdown. The sanctions specifically targeted Qasem Soleymani, commander of the IRGC Qods Force, and Mohsen Shirazi, head of Qods Force operations.  The Qods Force is the elite IRGC wing that liaises with foreign governments and militias. Accounts of Iran’s role vary significantly.  But other reports have suggested that Iran’s security apparatus, including police and intelligence, have also provided support to the Assad regime. 
 
Direct involvement by Iranian personnel is likely to be limited, however.  The Assad regime may need advice and assistance from its long-time Iranian allies, but Damascus has enough manpower to confront the opposition. The Syrian regime is also unlikely to defer to or hand over management of domestic affairs, especially decision-making on how to defuse the current crisis, to Iran. 
 
Cooperation between Iran and Syria was evident in the case of Dorothy Parvaz, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who works for al Jazeera. Parvaz was arrested in April when she flew to Syria to cover the unrest. She was imprisoned in Damascus and has written a graphic account of her ordeal. She was sent to Iran, where she was detained and eventually released. 
 
  • What are the stakes for Iran in Syria’s unrest?
For Iran, the ouster of President Bashar Assad in Syria would arguably be the most significant setback since the end of its eight-year war with Iraq in 1988 and possibly even since its 1979 revolution. Regime change would be a major blow for both Iran’s ideological and foreign policy goals.  Syria has been Iran’s only stalwart supporter over the past 32 years.  It was one of the few Arab states that stood by Iran during its eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s. 
 
Over the past three decades, Syria has also served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.  The militant Shiite movement represents a major asset for Tehran and Damascus in the regional power struggle against Israel, the United States and their allies.  Since the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Damascus and Tehran have rebuilt Hezbollah into a formidable force with an arsenal estimated at 40,000 rockets and missiles.
 
  • What impact is the Syrian political crisis having on Iran—either on the regime or the opposition?
The overthrow of the Assad regime has the potential to transform regional dynamics too.  It could force the theocratic regime to recalculate or soften its stance on key issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and support for Hezbollah and Hamas. It might also facilitate Iran’s rapprochement with Egypt.
 
On the domestic front, the toppling of Syria’s ruling Baath Party could embolden the opposition in Iran, particularly the Green Movement, to renew protests against its own autocratic leadership either through demonstrations or civil disobedience.
 
  • How important is the Iran-Syrian axis in the region?
The resurgence of Syrian-Iranian power in the Middle East has been exaggerated. Their influence has been enhanced—and Washington’s room for maneuver has diminished—partly due to other factors. They include: Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan; Israel’s failure to deliver a knock-out blow to Hezbollah during the 2006 war; the lack of progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process; and the volatility of oil prices in the international markets. 
 
Damascus has demonstrated its ability to stoke the fires in Iraq, while Tehran has proven its ability to intervene in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But both countries are also often on the defensive; neither has many other solid allies in the region. 
 
Tehran is the more powerful partner in the alliance today, but its leverage does not mean that Damascus is a junior partner or appendage of the Islamic Republic.  The Syrian Baathist regime calls the shots in its domestic and foreign affairs, and will try to ride out the current crises by using force and any means possible. 
 
 
Jubin Goodarzi, a professor of International Relations at Webster University Geneva, Switzerland, is author of, "Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East." 
 
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