I wrote a couple of days ago about the reactive nature of Iran’s Syria ‘strategy’ but what I really meant was Iran’s Syria ‘policy.’ The distinction is important because by providing full-fledged public support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran’s leaders have made a critical policy move. They could have made a different choice. There are significant elements within Iran’s foreign policy and even defense establishments which view the Syrian regime as a significant ally of the Islamic Republic, but do not see its collapse as an existential threat. More importantly, while they value the strategic relationship with Syria as a highly valued instrument for resisting Western penetration of the region, they do not see it as a vital interest. While acknowledging Iran’s security interests in their immediate neighborhood, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, they do not consider Iran’s extensive involvement in issues related to Palestine, Lebanon, or Syria as so critical to the country’s long-term strategic interests.
This explains the existence of alternative voices in the country that have called for a more balanced and proactive approach to Syria that did not place all of Iran’s eggs in Assad’s basket from the beginning of the unrest. And, Tehran did indeed take the initial steps toward providing full-fledged support for the Assad regime rather hesitantly in major part because it risked undermining Iran’s stated position in support of protest movements in the region. But, as regional players Turkey and Saudi Arabia began supporting the opposition, and as rhetoric in the United States and Israel focused increasingly on how the fall of the Syrian regime would constitute a “strategic” blow against Iran, Tehran ultimately adopted a policy of full support for the regime. This move arose from the argument – and, in some cases, genuine conviction – that, while the unrest was initially part of a spontaneous, domestic movement, at some point it turned into a larger geopolitical struggle in which regional and international players intent on weakening and eventually undermining the Islamic Republic were playing an increasingly critical role. Of course, one can point to paranoia as the source of this policy, but it’s a paranoia that’s at least partially situated in reality and that’s certainly fed by pundits and politicians in the US and Israel.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the decision-makers’ rationale, given what has transpired in Syria, Iran’s chosen policy appears to have been the wrong one.
Instead of hedging by trying to establish links with a multiplicity of political forces as Iran did effectively in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy of fully supporting Assad’s regime has not only come to naught, it is also hurting Iran’s attempts to develop relationships with newly elected Islamist governments in the region, particularly in Egypt, a country with which the Islamic Republic hoped to improve relations rapidly following the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood. More importantly, this one-track Syria policy has diminished Tehran’s leverage when it comes to gaining a seat at the table where regional issues are deliberated upon. If Iran’s only leverage in Syria is through Assad and company, what can Iran contribute that is beyond what Russia is already doing (or not doing)?
The question of whether the Islamic Republic could have actually pursued a more balanced approach is by the way not an easy one to answer. Given the under-studied dynamics and mechanics of relations between Tehran and Damascus, it is not at all clear if Iran had the capability to hedge in Syria. The nature of the Assad regime in all likelihood prevented Tehran from establishing any linkages with the opposition in the same way, for instance, that the Shah’s regime limited the Carter Administration’s potential linkages with the opposition in the late 1970s.
Still, the question of whether a more nuanced game could have been played remains. There are also serious questions concerning the quality of Iranian intelligence about on the ground conditions in Syria. Quoting a Syrian MP, Fars News, the penultimate tribune for hard-line bravura in the country, is still assuring its readers that “terrorists have so far not been able to take charge of any region. Damascus is under control, and Assad is in charge.” I have no idea if this is really the assessment of the hardliners who now control the country’s multiple intelligence-gathering bodies. But neither the boast nor the assessment suggests a very competent handling of the Syria situation.