Roadmap to Democracy in Iran and Syria

by SLATER BAKHTAVAR February 23, 2014

The recent violence and political upheaval in Syria put the spotlight on the strong alliance the Assad government has with the Islamic Republic of Iran. No sooner than protesters threatened to topple the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, did Iran step up its defense of its Syrian ally both in words and in actions. This left many observers to wonder why Iran reacted so strongly to the possibility of Assad's demise, when it has not done so during the downfall of Gaddafi or Mubarak in Libya and Egypt. To understand why, and to determine the best course of action for the international community when dealing with Syria, one must look at and understand the strong alliance between Syria and Iran.

The alliance was formed shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Long held strategic ties between Iran and Egypt ended when the Egyptian government made peace with Israel and that left Iran to look for a new partner in the region. With Syria still fuming over the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel, the choice seemed clear to both governments.

Throughout the 1980's Syria stood by Iran during its war with Iraq and aided the country by providing missile defense materials and training Iranian forces in their use. By siding with non-Arab Iran, Syria became a pariah in the region and made enemies of powerful nations like Saudi Arabia. Given this, their ties to Iran strengthened. Syria was also a major partner with Iran in supporting Shiite fighters like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and during that country's civil war in the 1980's both nations worked together to strengthen Hezbollah's hand against Israel by providing money and arms to the group. This partnership and support continued through the war between Israel and Lebanon in the mid 2000's and it continues today.

Some have labeled the Syria-Iranian alliance the "Axis of Resistance" since they two countries often stand together to prevent other regional powers and even outside powers like Britain and the United States from achieving their goals in the region. When the United States became involved in wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries that border Iran on either side, Syria played an important role in arming rebels and allowing Iran's Revolutionary Guard to operate inside its borders to bolster Al Qaeda forces in Iraq and menace the American forces who were fighting against them.

Syria also plays a pivotal role in supporting the Iranian government with arms and training that keeps it strong and allows it to keep an iron grip on power back home. Given all of these important points in the Syrian-Iranian relationship it is no wonder that Iran reacted so strongly when it's ally Bashar Al-Assad looked as though he would be overthrown in favor of a government that might be more receptive to Western allies and that would sever or at least weaken ties with Iran.

As fighting continued between Syrian forces and Syrian rebels, Iran stepped in to support the Assad regime with military support. This support only intensified once it was clear that US President Barack Obama had made a serious error by proclaiming his now infamous red line in Syria and then doing nothing once Syria crossed that red line by using chemical weapons on the rebels and its own civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Iran saw this weakness on the part of the US as a green light to escalate its efforts to not only prop up the Assad regime, but in fact, strengthen it.

Given this strong and historic alliance in the face of internal and external pressure, the international community has yet to come up with a way to effectively deal with the alliance. The best way to deal with the situation would seem to be to work to both strengthen the Syrian opposition while at the same time weakening the Iranian influence in Syria.

Supporting Syrian rebels is a difficult process. There are some in the international community who feel the rebels are Islamic extremists and helping them would not only bring instability to the region but would be helping Iran as well since the new Syrian government would most likely keep the alliance with Iran. This overlooks the role Iran has played in helping the Assad regime counter the rebels. Iran was left with the choice to support its long time ally or support Islamic rebels. In many places where Islamic rebels have fought a more secular government Iran sided with the rebels, but in Syria, Iran chose Assad and has been arming his government and training them against the rebels. The Syrian government, as mentioned before even resorted to chemical weapons against those who oppose it. It is unlikely the rebels will forget this should they come to power no matter how closely they are aligned with Iran philosophically.

Once the decision to support the Syrian forces is made it will be necessary to provide moral, technological and covert support. Currently the rebels are not strong enough to topple Assad on their own, but with technological and covert support against the Syrian forces, the Assad regime might be weakened enough to collapse. The United States is the only nation that can accomplish this effectively and there are two main reasons why it will be difficult for the US to take this action. First, when President Obama did not follow through on the red line threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped in to broker a deal. That deal is still in effect and the US would have to repudiate it and take unilateral action. Second, politically, the US government may not have the appetite for further covert involvement in the region. Libya was targeted and relatively quick, but Syria may draw the US into a more substantial and longer term presence.

Should the US decide to take action without and should the Assad regime fall, the impact on Iran could be great. Not only would the Iranian-Syrian alliance collapse, but internally, the Iranian people may feel emboldened to challenge their theocratic/military regime just as they did during the Green Movement of 2009-2011. At that time, the Obama Administration did not come to the support of the Iranian people, but should those pro-democracy forces regroup and challenge the Iranian government again, the US and European nations may find themselves under more pressure to take the chance to help transform Iran into a progressive democracy aligned with the West. However, the United States should be careful to avoid military intervention which would be a strategic and humanitarian disaster.

The future of Iran and Syria should be decided by the people which include demonstrators out on the streets and in the case of Iran, the Shah's son, Reza Pahlavi who advocates a constitutional monarchy similar to Denmark, Spain, England and Japan or a secular republic.  There are also potential leaders in the streets of Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz and other cities in Iran. Let's get it done.. 

Slater Bakhtavar is an attorney, journalist, author and political commentator. He is author of “Iran: The Green Movement”.


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