This is an updated and expanded article based on the presentation at the Workshop "Arab Spring from the perspective of Al-Qaida and Iran” at ICT's 11th International Conference, September 2011, forthcoming in the book with the Conference’s proceedings.
At the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011 Iran seemed to be the great regional winner. The Iranian leadership considered events in Tunisia and Egypt as an anti-American movement playing to their advantage. In February 2011, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule, saying that the political upheaval in the Arab world was part of an "irreversible defeat" for the United States and an "Islamic awakening" in the Middle East. He compared the popular uprisings against Western-backed autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt to Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.i In a speech as part of a commemoration of Eid al Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned the West to not take advantage of the “Arab Spring.” He referred to the uprisings as "destiny making and decisive" but warned of trouble for the Arab world if "imperialist and hegemonic powers and Zionism" were able to take advantage of the situation.ii Khamenei said that Sunni Arabs do not accept Iran’s principle of the Rule of the Jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih) and therefore Iran must instill its Islamic system among Arab Spring nations with the concept of “religious democracy.”iii The daily Keyhan predicted that the fall of Mubarak’s regime will deal a major blow to the regional status of the U.S. while Iran’s status will likely strengthen and it will take charge of the developments in the Middle East. President Ahmadinejad declared that “a Mideast without Israel and America is now possible.” However, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rejected Khamenei’s statements, calling the uprising the “Egyptian people's revolution.”iv On the diplomatic/strategic front, it was significant that the Egyptian transitional government seemed ready to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran after a break of more than 30 years.v Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have taken conflicting positions towards various Arab uprisings. While supporting the Egyptian and Tunisian people against their leaders, and criticizing the Bahraini government in support of the Shiites there, they supported the violent repression of Syrian demonstrators by the regime in Damascus. At a time when Muammar Qaddafi was facing international isolation, Iran remained silent with regards to the developments in Libya. Iran became one of the harshest critics against military intervention in Libya as the steadfastness of Qaddafi in face of the NATO campaign served also as a shield against international intervention in Syria, or Iran itself.vi In March 2011, in the wake of deaths and missing persons at the hands of security forces and increasingly volatile anti-government protests, the King of Bahrain called for help from the GCC to restore order. The GCC responded by sending Saudi troops and Emirati police officers into the country and the situation returned to relative stability.vii Bahrain’s uprising was crushed in part due to the military intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the country’s Sunni monarchy continued to deal severely with those involved in widespread protests, mostly members of its repressed Shiite majority.viii The assertive behavior of Saudi Arabia and its military intervention against the Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain have left Iran with a big problem. It has failed to act quickly to implement its threats of intervention in Bahrain, but rather pursued a careful diplomatic policy. The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried to reopen the severed communication channels with Saudi Arabia and changed the hardline rhetoric, whilst at the same time Iran clandestinely supported its Shia allies in Bahrain with money and arms. Internally, Iran has behaved nervously out of fear that the Arab popular rebellion will contaminate the Iranian youth. Indeed, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran in February to demonstrate solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian protesters, ignoring threats from the government. But the Iranian police responded with beatings, arrests, tear gas, and other brutal measures and the regime had the upper-hand in the situation with its forces clearly willing to use maximum brutality. Syria is Iran's closest ally in the Arab world. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would be a strategic blow to Iran, cutting off its most important bridge to the Arab world while empowering its main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and its increasingly influential competitor, Turkey, both Sunni-majority nations. Iran would also lose its main arms pipeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon, further undermining its ambition to be the primary regional power from the Levant to Pakistan. Quite early in the uprising, US officials disclosed that Iran was aiding Syria in its suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators by providing equipment to put down protests and monitor opposition groups. Significantly, the Iranian state media censored its coverage of the anti-regime unrest in Syria.x Syrian protesters claimed that security forces from both Iran and Hezbollah have been drawn into the fray, posting videos that showed Hezbollah fighters streaming across the border in black S.U.V.’s. In response, Iranian and Hezbollah flags have been burned by the protesters.xi Paradoxically, the Turkish and Iranian regional hegemonic aspirations are both threatened by the dramatic events unfolding in Syria. The neo-Ottoman aspects of Turkey’s activism in foreign policy have raised the specter of a future rivalry with Iran’s regional and global aspirations on the historical model Ottoman Empire viz. Savafid Persia.xii On the Iranian side, some voices warned about the possibility that the improvement of Turkey’s status in the region may come at Iran’s expense. The Donya-ye Eqtesad daily noted that the long-standing relations between the two countries were not based solely on friendship but also on rivalry and paradoxically “the rise of Islam only further intensified the competition between the two countries.” Since the Turkish moves against the Assad regime, Tehran has been influential in disrupting Syria's confidence in Turkey by disseminating anti-Turkish propaganda, has stopped intelligence cooperation with Turkey in the fight against the Kurdish PKK in Iraq, and has even threatened it not to intervene in Syrian affairs less “serious issues are sure to follow.” Iran was also unhappy about Turkey’s support to the Bahraini regime’s repression of the Shia rebellion.xiii Prior to the uprisings Hassan Nasrallah was among the most beloved and feared men in the Arab world. By supporting the massacres in Syria over the past sixteen months, Nasrallah and Hezbollah engendered the hatred of millions of Sunnis in Syria and the Arab world at large. This dynamic is likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Lebanon between Shiites and Lebanese Sunnis, who support the Sunni opposition in Syria.xiv Hezbollah has increased its support to the Assad regime since a July 18, 2012 bomb attack in Damascus killed four senior security officials. There are reports that Hezbollah is targeting Syrian opposition members near the border areas inside Lebanese territory. There is evidence of quiet burials in Hezbollah-dominated areas of Lebanon, with the families of the “martyrs” warned not to discuss the circumstances of their sons’ deaths. The U.S. Treasury Department accused Hezbollah of “providing training, advice, and extensive logistical support to the Government of Syria.” Hezbollah is coordinating its military aid in Syria with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps by helping them train Syrian forces.xv On this background, 48 Iranian Shiite "pilgrims" were abducted in August 2012, in Damascus. The Free Syrian Army claimed they were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, dispatched to Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad's regime. Since May, another militia, the "Syrian Revolutionaries-Aleppo Province," has been holding eleven Lebanese Shiites including five Hezbollah officials. The kidnappers indicated that negotiations for the hostages would be predicated on Nasrallah apologizing for "assist[ing] in the suppression of the uprising."xvi Since January 2012 a worldwide campaign of terrorist foiled and failed attacks against Israeli targets took place involving Iranian, Lebanese and local citizens. The wave began in January with a foiled attempt in Bulgaria, and continued until July with arrests of local, Iranian or Hezbollah operatives in Azerbaijan, Thailand, Singapore, India Turkey, Cyprus, Kenya and probably other undisclosed countries. Finally, on July 18, 2012 Iran and Hezbollah staged a “successful” attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian citizen and wounding some 30 Israelis.xvii In this author’s opinion, the real Iranian strategic goal was not to retaliate against Israel for its alleged assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists as claimed by some observers, but rather to provoke a regional conflict between Israel and its neighbors which would divert international attention from Iran’s nuclear program.xviii A large number of casualties might prompt an Israeli military retaliation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, already massively armed by Iran and Syria, or in Gaza, in case of a massive missile attack by Palestinian Islamic Jihad or other minor groups, which could lure Israel into a major land operation and a possible crisis with Egypt. Moreover, the Iranian daily Kayhan, close to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, called on July 21 on Bashar Al-Assad to fight Israel, in a "limited war…to liberate part of the occupied Syrian territories," or a "comprehensive war of no set duration" to be waged by the entire “resistance axis.“ Dr Abbas Maleki, former deputy foreign minister of Iran, described Iran’s presently facing multiple crises in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia: the difficulties and uncertainties of political transition in Egypt, chaos in Syria, a crisis of authoritarianism in Bahrain, insecurity in Iraq, on-going conflict in Afghanistan, tensions in the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus's unresolved disputes, and the outstanding legal regime problem in Caspian Sea, to mention the salient ones. He added the sanctions on Iran and the nuclear standoff to the list.xix Tehran has already suffered a serious blow when Hamas deserted the so called “axis of resistance” and its leaders abandoned Assad’s sinking ship. Hamas, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood branch, strategically enjoyed until then the “coalition against nature,” as this author called it, with the butchers of the Syrian Muslim Brothers. Hamas was an important Palestinian and Sunni asset for Iran’s legitimacy in the Arab world and a helpful proxy in its fight against Israel.xx Hamas leaders returned to their natural Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood home, building on a symbiotic Islamist relationship to successfully challenge the Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority first and hopefully Israel next. The October 2012 visit of the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Thani, to Gaza is a clear sign that Hamas is now part and parcel of the Sunni coalition (with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar) against the Iranian Shia (only) coalition (Syrian Alawites, Iraqi Shiites, and Lebanese Hezbollah). Dr. Mehran Kamrava, professor at the Georgetown University Qatar Branch has claimed that “the power structure in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf is changing and it is directed towards Qatar.”xxi Qatar’s political, financial and military support to the Syrian opposition, after its intervention on the ground against the Qaddafi regime in Libya and its financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists, in Egypt, testify indeed to its growing role in the region and more propensity to challenge Iran. The gains on the ground of the Syrian military and insurgent opposition during the last months, even if they did not decisively change the balance of power in their favor, proved that the Assad regime will not be able to overcome it and Iran understood it has to accommodate in the near future to a new reality and try to cut the losses. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi claimed Iran seeks a solution that opens the door to include Syria's opposition in a national dialogue. Iran hosted in August 2012 an international conference on Syria to discuss the possibility of ending the bloodshed but it ended in a diplomatic failure.xxii Actually Iran is in search for the right price to drop its support to Assad, as it is aware that sooner or later Assad will fall, according to Bashir Abdel Fattah, a prominent Egyptian political analyst.xxiii Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi also warned Iran to end its support for Assad in order to prevent any chance of Western intervention in Syria, during the Non-Aligned Movement’s meeting last month in Tehran. Abdel Fattah remarks that Morsi “wanted to send a message to Iran that if you want to normalize your relations with Egypt, you have to reconsider your stance in the Syrian crisis and stop supporting Assad.”xxiv Mohammad Ali Sobhani, former Iranian Ambassador, described Syria's developments as “a limited cold war between the U.S. and its allies and Russia and China and several other countries [without mentioning Iran] which support Assad. The differences of opinion between the two camps produced a deadlock and the inability of the international community to reach an agreement in order to solve the Syrian crisis, transforming the cold war in the international arena in a “hot” war in Syria.xxv Ayatollah Khamenei's senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayati described Syria as "the front [line] of the resistance [axis]." The Tehran regime, aware of the stakes of this strategic game, has presented Syria as an “arm of Iran” and therefore the struggle against it a struggle against Iran, in retaliation for Iran's assistance to Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi stressed the importance of Syria as a link between Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. He added that in the eyes of Iran’s enemies “the only way to prevent Iran from exerting its influence over the Islamic countries was to destroy Syria."xxvi Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast warned against foreign intervention in Syria and warned that the Syrian crisis might spill over into other parts of the Middle East. Former Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official Hassan Abbasi threatened “American strategists” that a war in Syria "could turn into a world war," and would hasten the revolution in Jordan and topple the Saudi regime.xxvii It is not clear why the latest low level military confrontation between Syria and Turkey at their borders continue while even Hossein Alaei, former Navy Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps thinks that “war is to Assad’s disadvantage.” Some analysts believe that Syria's objective in launching shells on Turkey’s border regions is to “create a foreign war to cover up its civil war.”xxviii Sadegh Maleki, a senior Iranian expert on strategic affairs, thinks that this is the way “Damascus punishes Erdogan.” Turkey looked at Syria's developments as “an opportunity that could be considered as the starting point for a Neo-Ottoman revival.” But, says Maleki, when Turkey considers it legitimate to intervene in Syria, it gives Damascus the right to use the conflict between the Turks and the PKK as “tools to change the situation to its advantage”.xxix Alaei, the former Iranian Navy Commander, asserts that Iran “will attempt to prevent Turkey from beginning a war with Syria and explain the unpleasant consequences of war to the government of Turkey.” But in case Turkeys enter into war with Syria, this will “change the situation,” hinting to a possible Iranian intervention.xxx If Assad falls, the political system of Iraq will also be challenged. Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former Deputy Foreign Minister, mentions Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s efforts to “follow the scenario” to weaken Iraq's stability, but so far he notes, they have not succeeded. It is on this background that Iran’s Defense Minister, Vahidi, visited Baghdad at the beginning of October 2012, the first of its kind. Hossein Rooyvaran, an Iranian expert on Middle East affairs, described the important visit as “a type of aggressive diplomacy”. The threat of the Syrian crisis spreading to the region is an opportunity for the strengthening of cooperation between Iran and the Baghdad Shia government, notes Rooyvaran.xxxi Russia, which supports the Damascus regime in order to keep its assets in the region, its military naval base in the Syrian harbor Tartous and its presence in the “hot waters” of the Mediterranean, proposed to organize a “Taif conference between all the players of the conflict," as Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov put it, a reference to the agreement signed on October 22, 1989 in the Saudi city that brought the end of the Lebanon civil war.xxxii Mohammad Sadegh Al-Hosseini and other Iranian political analysts evaluate that any decision regarding the political future of Syria is postponed until after the U.S. election. He stresses the threat of a “Syrian Taif” scenario because in his opinion this “will break the back of the resistance” and therefore Syria’s allies, Iran, China and Russia, cannot approve it. He predicts that the Syrian army, transformed by Hafez Assad “from a national army into an ideological army” which proved its loyalty to the central government, in spite of some desertions, “will never collapse.”xxxiii The worst-case scenario would be the formation of an Alawite statelet where the backbone of the Syrian army would retreat with most of its heavy weapons, the air force and the chemical weapons it possesses, an insurance card against a bloody offensive by the Sunni opposition on its last stronghold. Michael Young, known observer of the Lebanese arena, brought up first in July 2011 the prospect of an Alawite statelet in northwest Syria if the regime arrives at the conclusion its days are numbered. The “retreat to an Alawite fortress” could have frightening repercussions in Lebanon and Iraq, he warned. Even Hezbollah could cooperate with the Lebanese Christians in a “scheme of disconnection from Lebanon” favorable to an Alawite statelet, to contrast the perceived Sunni threat.xxxiv In such a scenario, an Alawite regime could count on the deterrent presence of a significant Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps expeditionary force and the strategic support of Russia based on its naval presence in Tartous and possibly in the future in Lattakia also.
For sure, Syria and the Middle East will not be the same in the near future, but the end game remains open. Iran leaders’ constant focus on the potential repercussions of the Syrian uprising clearly shows that they are extremely worried. Not least among their worries is that the protests could set off renewed violent demonstrations at home. In this author’s opinion, the fall of the Assad regime in Damascus could trigger an attempted popular uprising in Iran, on the model of the rebellions in Libya and Syria. This time the uprising would not be in the framework of the struggle between regime’s conservative and “reformist” forces, like the bloody repressed demonstrations following the contested presidential elections of July 2009, but against the regime itself. The massive demonstrations in Tehran's Bazaar District at the beginning of October 2012, with chants mostly directed at the government's handling of the economic crisis but also chants in solidarity with the Syrian uprising, were presented as a reaction to the plunging value of Iran’s currency, the rial, and the economic hardships resulting from the severe international sanctions against the Iranian nuclear project. It should be remembered however that the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution was triggered in great measure by the bazari mobilization against Shah’s regime. Iran has also, like Syria and Libya, complex sectarian problems, with past and present attempts of insurgency by Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and possibly Azeri nationalists, which could deteriorate as a result of a popular Persian uprising and enhance the threat to the regime’s stability.
[i] Meris Lutz, “Iran's supreme leader calls uprisings an 'Islamic awakening',” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2011. [ii] Rick Gladstone, “Iran Concerned West Will Benefit from Arab Uprisings,” The New York Times (NYT), August 31, 2011. [iii] IRNA, September 8, 2011. [iv] Lutz, Iran's supreme leader calls uprisings an 'Islamic awakening'. [v] Michael Theodoulou, “Egypt's new government ready to renew country's ties with Iran,” UAE The National, April 6, 2011. [vi] Adel Al Toraifi, “Did the Syrian Spring spoil the Supreme Leader's night?” Asharq Al Awsat, August 17, 2011. [vii] Nikki Schreiber, “The GCC intervention: giving Bahrain relative stability and the space to negotiate its future,” London The Independent, April 12, 2011. [viii] J. David Goodman, “Bahrain Court Hands Down Harsh Sentences to Doctors and Protesters,” NYT, September 29, 2011. [ix] Al Toraifi, Did the Syrian Spring spoil the Supreme Leader's night? [x] “Iran 'aiding' Syria crackdown on protests,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 14, 2011. [xi] Neil MacFarquhar, “In Shift, Iran’s President Calls for End to Syrian Crackdown,” NYT, September 8, 2011. [xii] Ely Karmon, “A devil’s advocate view of ‘new’ Mideast,” The Jerusalem Post, June 22, 2011. [xiii] Ibid. [xiv] David Schenker, “Hezbollah’s Karma in Syria,” The Weekly Standard, August 10, 2012. [xv] Babak Dehghanpisheh, “Hezbollah increases support for Syrian regime, U.S. and Lebanese officials say,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2012. [xvi] Schenker, Hezbollah’s Karma in Syria. [xvii] The Iranian/Hezbollah attacks took place in “soft countries” in Asia and Africa, countries where the intelligence and law enforcement agencies are not sufficiently trained to challenge this kind of threat and where the Iranian/Hezbollah activities are low priority for the local security agencies. [xviii] Ely Karmon, “Iran and Hezbollah's terror escalation against Israel,” Haaretz, July 22, 2012. [xix] Kaveh L Afrasiabi, “Interview with Dr Abbas Maleki, Iran eyes role as post-Arab Spring 'anchor',” Asia Times Online, August 7, 2012. [xx] Ely Karmon, "Iran–Syria-Hizballah–Hamas: A Coalition against Nature. Why does it Work?" Proteus Monograph Series, Volume 1, Issue 5, May 2008, Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA., USA, at www.carlisle.army.mil/proteus/docs/karmon-iran-syria-hizbollah.pdf. [xxi] “Middle East’s Changing Geopolitics, A speech made by Dr. Mehran Kamrava, professor at Georgetown University, Qatar Branch, at the 6th annual conference of Iran’s Political Science Association,” Iranian Diplomacy website, October 13, 2012. [xxii] AFP, “Iran seeks lead role in diplomacy on Syria,“August 9, 2012. [xxiii] Sinem Cengiz. “Abdel Fattah: Iran will drop Assad for right price,” Today’s Zaman, September 30, 2012. [xxiv] Ibid. [xxv] “Formation of a Syrian Taif, West’s Priority in Syria after US Election. Fararu.com’s interview with Mohammad Sadegh Al-Hosseini,” Iranian Diplomacy website, October 20, 2012. [xxvi] Citations from the article A. Savyon, “The Collapse of the Assad Regime – Regional Repercussions: Part I – Iranian Threats to Wage War on Israel,” MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis, No. 859, July 19, 2012. [xxvii] Ibid. [xxviii] “War Is to Assad’s Disadvantage. An interview with Dr. Hossein Alaei, former Navy Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps,” Iranian Diplomacy website, October 14, 2012. [xxix] Sadegh Maleki, a senior expert on strategic affairs, “Damascus Punishes Erdogan,” Iranian Diplomacy website, October 16, 2012. [xxx] War Is To Assad’s Disadvantage. [xxxi] “Iran Resorts to Offense-Based Diplomacy in Iraq. An interview with Hossein Rooyvaran, an expert on Middle East affairs,” Iranian Diplomacy, October 6, 2012. [xxxii] AFP, “Russia proposes Syria conflict conference,” September 10, 2012. [xxxiii] “Formation of a Syrian Taif, West’s Priority in Syria after US Election. Fararu.com’s interview with Mohammad Sadegh Al-Hosseini, Iranian Diplomacy, October 20, 2012. [xxxiv] Michael Young, “Syria’s partition could crack Lebanon,” Beirut The Daily Star, July 1, 2011.