Syria’s brutal crackdown on protesters puts Iran in the hot spot


Syria’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests is putting Iran between a rock and a hard place.

For months, the Islamic republic touted the protests that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and wracked the Middle East and North Africa as the children of its own Islamic revolution that, in 1979 overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, one of the United States’ closest allies in the region.

Yet, in the case of Syria, its closest Arab ally, Iran stands accused of assisting President Bashar al-Assad in his attempt to intimidate his opponents with the use of naked force. Iran on Saturday rejected US President Barack Obama’s accusation that Mr. Al-Assad was “seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies.”

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast dismissed the allegations, asserting that “our foreign policy is very clear—we do not intervene in the domestic affairs of other states.”

Perhaps more important than Mr. Mehmanparast’s par-for-the-course retort to Mr. Obama was his veiled criticism of Mr. Assad without referring to Syria by name. “We respect the sovereignty of other countries and we respect the demands of people. We consider as unacceptable the use of violence against the people of any country,” Mr. Mehmanparast said. His comment constituted Iran’s first criticism of Mr. Assad since anti-government protests erupted in Syria a month ago.

Iran’s Syrian conundrum comes as its cold war with Saudi Arabia is heating as a result of protests in the Gulf, with the Gulf States blaming Iran for instigating the unrest and the presence of Saudi forces on the predominantly Shiite Muslim island of Bahrain to protect strategic facilities.

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)–which groups Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alongside the Kingdom–last week warned Iran to stop its “provocations,” and called on the international community and the (UN) Security Council to take necessary measures to stop what it described as “flagrant Iranian interference and provocation aimed at sowing discord and destruction” among GCC nations.

Several Gulf States reported in recent weeks that they had uncovered Iranian spy cells. Bahrain said earlier in April that it would put two Iranians on trial on charges of spying for Tehran, and Kuwait this week expelled Iranian diplomats for alleged links to an Iranian spy ring.

So far, the saber rattling suited Iran’s purpose. It allowed the Iranian republic to project itself as a revolutionary protector of Shiite Muslim rights and the repressed masses across the region. But Iran runs the risk that its policy toward the Gulf as well as toward Syria could backfire if the escalating cold war becomes truly hot and erupts into open hostilities. Such hostilities could call its bluff and reveal its de facto military weakness as a result of international sanctions.

The Syrian conundrum heightens that risk. Mr. Obama’s comments signal that as in the case of Libya, where the United States for the first time this weekend employed drones to attack Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi’s forces, the international community may not stand by idly if Mr. Assad pursues his brutal crackdown. International action against Syria would move Iran closer to the firing line.
The stakes are high for Iran. Syria plays a key logistical and political role in the Islamic republic’s relationships with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas–two of the world’s most lethal and most sustainable guerrilla groups that help it compensate for its military weakness.

The more Iran is drawn into the Syrian crisis, the more it may be tempted to attempt to divert attention and focus national passions on an external enemy by pressuring Hezbollah to step up hostilities along Lebanon’s border with Israel. While Hezbollah is not merely a Syrian or Iranian puppet, it too has much to lose from a demise of the Assad regime.

Irrespective of whether Iran is supporting Mr. Assad, its opportunistic support of the protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa threatens to become a mixed blessing. Iran successfully prevented its support for the protests from backfiring despite its brutal squashing of demonstrations of its own timed to coincide with celebrations in February of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Distancing itself from its closest Arab ally may prove to be more difficult.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])