Is Iran beginning to abandon the Syrian despot Bashar Al Assad?
Officially, the Baathist regime in Damascus and the Khomeinist regime in Tehran remain strategic allies. Under a treaty, signed in 2004, they are committed to helping one another against "external threats". They also hold annual meetings of senior military commanders, ostensibly to "coordinate efforts to strengthen regional stability." Iran supplies arms to Syria and has been training Syrian security personnel since the mid-1990s. Iran's annual aid package to Syria amounts to more than $500 million.
Specialists believe that, after the disintegration of the Communist bloc, the Islamic Republic has replaced the Soviet Union as Syria's protector.
Syria has been useful to Iran in several ways.
It has prevented the emergence of a united Arab bloc against the Khomeinist regime and acted as a channel for Iranian influence in Lebanon.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his ambition to see Iran secure a presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the 7th century. That, he hopes, would be achieved by dominating Iraq and using Syria and Lebanon as client states. Tehran media depicted the recent appearance of an Iranian war flotilla in Syrian ports as a dramatic occasion to "show the flag".
Over the past year, a new factor has increased Syria's value as an Iranian asset in the geostrategic competition in the Middle East.
That factor is Turkey.
Convinced that joining the European Union is more of a mirage than a possibility, Turkish leaders have switched to a "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy aimed at creating a zone of influence from the Caspian Basin to North Africa.
Turkey's new ambitions clash with Iran's hegemonic plans.
Their rivalry is not limited to geopolitics. There is also a subtext of ideological competition. Turkey's current leadership is a moderate branch of the Muslim Brotherhood using the label of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
"Today, Turkey is offering a model to the Muslim world," Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan told an election victory rally in Istanbul last Sunday. "Turkey wants to become a voice for Muslims throughout the world."
For Khomeinists in Tehran, Mr. Erdogan's claim is as provocative as waving a red cloth at a Spanish bull. (The Khomeinist Constitution claims that Ali Khamenei is "Leader of all Muslims throughout the world.")
For some three years, Turkey has been assiduously courting Syria. The two have signed business deals amounting to $1 billion, a large sum for Syria's small economy. Turkey has also served as "facilitator" in talks between Syria and Israel. That, in turn, has reinforced Israel's traditional policy of supporting the Mr. Assad clan against an "unknown future."
Since the mullahs seized power in 1979, Tehran has harbored the hope of emerging as "regional superpower". With the United States apparently bent on strategic retreat under President Obama, Tehran's hubris reached its peak under Ahmadinejad. Turkey's unexpected entry in the competition threatened Tehran's ambitions.
Suddenly, Syria looked like a key pawn.
It is no surprise that the media in Iran have chosen to ignore the uprising against the Syrian regime. Until this week, whenever the uprising was mentioned it was branded "an American-Zionist plot". And, yet, there are signs, still faint, that Tehran might be reconsidering the situation in Syria.
For the first time since the uprising started, the official news agency IRNA has ran an item about "the need to respond to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people." The daily Kayhan, controlled by the office of the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, advises Syrian leaders to carry out "necessary reforms" to defeat "American-Zionist conspiracies." Hard-line members of the Islamic Majlis, Iran's fake parliament, claim that Syria is in trouble because it "dabbled in secularism."
More importantly, perhaps, Tehran has decided to stop the flow of pilgrims to a "holy shrine" near Damascus. The excuse given by the Khomeinist Cultural Attaché in Syria is that the pilgrims also travel to Lebanon where they visit "Christian majority areas" and become exposed to "wrong ideas."
It is, of course, too early to tell whether Tehran will jettison the Assad clan. However, such an eventuality could not be ruled out. Khomeinists have never hesitated to drop a protégé when he looked like a loser. (Recently, Tehran dropped the al-Hakim clan in Iraq, having supported it for three decades. Tehran diverted its support to the group led by Muqtada Al Sadr.)
If Tehran's attitude changes, the key, once again, would be Turkey. Having initially backed the Assad clan, Turkey has now switched to supporting the uprising. By doing so it is banking on the future as the Assad clan increasingly looks like the past. Iran, however, is still wedded to the past in Syria, and could thus emerge as a loser.
If there is regime change in Damascus, Iran would be shut out as a power that supported the Assad clan while it was killing the people in the streets. If the Assad clan manages to hang on to a semblance of power through mass carnage, Tehran would end up saddled with an isolated and bankrupt regime In Damascus.
Turkey's prospects are different. A new regime in Damascus would regard Turkey as a true friend that supported the Syrian people against a regime they rejected. If the Assad clan remains in power, Turkey would emerge as the leader of a new wave of reform and change across the Greater Middle East.
Under all conceivable configurations, the only way for Iran to avoid becoming a loser is to jettison Mr. Assad and reach out to the Syrian people.
Whatever one might think about them, Tehran's geo-strategists would not be as out of touch with reality not to know all that.
Published in the London-based Asharq Alawsat on June 17.