Iran sees threat to its clout amid Arab Spring
Iran's relationship with Syria gives it clout with a broad range of players. If Syria's regime collapses, so too could Iran's regional influence.
As Arab uprisings sweep the Middle East, few images will likely unsettle Iran's leadership more than that of their flag being burned by Syrian protesters angry with the Islamic Republic's deep ties with Syria's dynastic regime.Skip to next paragraph
Activists shouted "freedom" as they torched the flag in a protest broadcast online. It was just one of the many demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad's government that have shaken Syria for months and led to at least 1,000 deaths.
Of all the regional revolts, Syria's presents the biggest dilemma for Iran. Syria is the linchpin that connects Iran to the powerful Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, along with Palestinian militant group Hamas, form the so-called "Axis of Resistance" against Israel and Western aims throughout the Middle East. But if Mr. Assad is forced from power, that axis – and Iran's "soft power" reach in the region – could be in jeopardy.
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"If the Syrian regime [falls], that will be a major blow to Iran's foreign policy, in terms of ideological aspirations, projecting its power in the eastern Mediterranean, [and] trying to participate – whether substantially or symbolically – in the Arab-Israeli conflict," says Jubin Goodarzi, a Mideast specialist at Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland.
Iran has portrayed the Arab Spring as an "explosion of sacred anger" and an "Islamic awakening" since it brought down pro-Western dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. But the unrest is a double-edged sword for Iran: Two years ago it put down its own pro-democracy Green Movement and now seems unable to sell its message to a region swept up in change that has little to do with religion or anti-Western hatred and much to do with freedom. And for Arab revolutionaries, that brutal 2009 crackdown further diminishes Iran's legitimacy in the new Middle East.
Iran's enduring relationship with Syria
Iran's relationship with Syria has been one of the most enduring – and unlikely – in the modern Middle East. In the early 1980s, Syria, ruled by the secular Arab nationalist Baath Party, sought to forge an alliance with the Islamic rulers of Iran to bolster its stand against Israel in the wake of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.