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Understanding Iran's perception of Syrian turbulence

By Ali Omidi - posted Monday, 30 July 2012

Robert Jervis in "Perception and Misperception in International Politics", investigates how international political decision-makers perceive themselves, other actors, and the environment; how perceptions and misperceptions can influence their decisions; and how such decisions can influence outcomes in international politics. This conception is very true with regards to Iran's attitudes towards Syrian developments.

Both the explosion in the Syrian National Security Council building and the assassinations of the Syrian Defense Minister and other Syrian security personnel have been defined as turning point events in Syria's political developments since the start of unrest. It seems that the main purpose of these terrorist acts has been to show the fragility of the regime and to challenge the role of Russia, China and Iran in Syria's international balance of power.

The Syrian opposition has tried to complicate the crisis through the weakened morale of the army and the Syrian people. They have wanted to prove that even the heartland of Bashar Al-Assad's regime is not secure anymore. By dragging the war into Aleppo and trying to make another Benghazi in Syria, the situation is getting out of control. One of the questions, raised after the terrorist events, is whether the policy of Iran towards Syria will now change? Why, unlike other Arab revolutions, have the developments against President Assad not been supported by Tehran?


To answer these questions, it has to be noted that Tehran perceives the nature of events in Syria to be different from the Arab Springs of other countries for the following reasons:

1. Iran's understanding is that in countries such as Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the majority of people opposed the ruling regime and just a weak minority supported them, but in Syria it is quite the reverse. The vast majority of people in Syria have repeatedly expressed their support for the president and only a minority, mainly from border cities, is opposed to the government. The main Syrian opposition includes groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (unlike Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has Salafist tendencies) and the dissident Kurds. There are some other small groups that are in line with the strategies of the opposition. The type of massacre conducted by the rebels in Syria show that it is similar to others done by Salafist groups that have included mutilation, peeling, scorching and other evil deeds.

2. In Tehran's view, in contrast to the other Arab leaders who were puppets of the US, the Syrian regime is not dependent on the West. One target of other Arab Springs has been the US and Israel, while in Syria, it is the regime that is completely anti-American and anti-Israeli. Tehran believes that the Syrian rebels have been incited and assisted mainly by the US and Israel.

3. The assistance of reactionary Arab sultans against Syria, such as from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are good proof of the claim that the issue in Syria is not one of reform or democracy. In Tehran's mind, it is unlikely for the non-democratic sultans to strive for democracy.

This is why Iran has supported the movement of people in the other Arab Spring cases, but has not labeled the movement within Syria as "genuine". Accordingly, the Supreme Leader in Iran opined that Tehran just supports movements which are "Islamic" and "anti-arrogance". In Tehran it is believed that the Syrian opposition movement not only does not have any of these features, but also that it is in line with world "arrogance", namely America.

Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, while Iran has confirmed the people's demands as legitimate, it has been opposed to interference in the internal affairs of Syria. Iran has called on Syria to accelerate the reform process, so as to satisfy its citizens. Therefore, Tehran believes that it has not ignored the opponents or the people's legitimate demands. It believes that political reforms will result in a favorable situation in Syria, while anarchy or foreign interference will not bring about any benefit to the people of Syria. In Tehran's view, the current situation in Syria is just dragging the country into civil war and destruction, which is not a promising future.


Furthermore, Tehran believes that its strategic depth has been extended to the borders of the Israel since 1980. The Lebanese and Syrian borders virtually form the strategic border between Iran and Israel or the US. In fact, Syria is considered as the front line. Tehran believes that Iran's so-called enemies know that without breaking the front line, it is not possible to infiltrate to the heartland, i.e. Iran. From its perspective, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas have formed an alliance against Israel, with Syria playing a role in bridging that front. The US and Israel know very well that toppling the Syrian regime means destruction of that bridge. If they eliminate Syria, the connection between Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli movements will be cut. Iran views Syria from this perspective and, therefore, has been opposed to any foreign military intervention in Syria. Any change in the political scene in the region, particularly the political system in Syria may weaken the geopolitical position of Iran. So, for political, ideological and geopolitical reasons, Iran will continue with its current policy towards Syria.

Tehran believes that the West and its regional allies' utmost efforts to weaken Bashar Assad's Syrian regime show that the West looks from the same angle as Tehran looks towards the developments. The West's ardent opposition to any Iranian participation in international diplomacy on Syria shows that it is not seeking to reduce violence in Syria, but just to shorten the circle of siege against what Iran calls the "resistance against Zionism".

The West and its allies in some Arab states have shown that they are not seeking a political solution to the crisis. These allies include those who exert political pressure on Assad's regime and offer financial support and weapons as well as media coverage to the armed opposition groups. Iran, in contrast, believes that conventional methods for legal and political reform in Syria are a natural and reasonable right of the people of Syria.

Given the issues that Iran attributes to Syria's turbulence, it is believed that Tehran will do its utmost to maintain the status quo, even it entails risking military involvement.

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About the Author

Dr Ali Omidi is Assistant Professor of International Relationsat the University of Isfahan-Iran.

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All articles by Ali Omidi

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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