Bashar al-Assad: a costly card for Iran?

Analyzing Iran’s changing take on the Syrian conflict and their support for President Bashar al-Assad

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

Recent statements by top Iranian officials appear to divulge the Islamic of Republic of Iran’s frustration and dissatisfaction with the Assad apparatuses’ inability to thoroughly crack down on various rebel groups and oppositional fronts, and to regain full control of the state.

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, pointed out in a recent interview: “We aren’t seeking to have Bashar al-Assad remain president for life…” The Islamic Republic has been instrumental in preventing the Syrian government’s economy from collapsing. Tehran extended a $3.6 billion credit line to Damascus. The credit line enables Damascus to buy oil products from Tehran and assist in shoring up the Syrian currency (Pound), which has significantly devalued in the last two years.

The Assad government lost its daily revenue of approximately $7 million from oil exports after the U.S. and European countries banned oil exports from Damascus. Moreover, Damascus lost an estimated $7 billion of revenue a year from tourism. According to Iranian state media this week, Tehran has also delivered 30,000 tons of food supplies to Syria on Tuesday in order to assist the Syrian government in dealing with food shortages created by the civil war. Before the conflict, Syria had the capability of producing most of its domestic food necessities, as well as exporting a considerable amount of wheat. Nevertheless, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), Syria will hit a record low this year by producing 1.7 to 2 million tons of wheat.

Although, Abdollahian insists that Iran’s aid to Syria is limited to humanitarian goods, this falsehood, duplicity, and dishonesty is evident in every facet. In addition to the extension of billions of dollars in credit and economic assistance, the Islamic Republic has been playing a pivotal function through its proxy Hezbollah as well as the Quds Forces— a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps— to provide military, intelligence, geopolitical, strategic and advisory aid to ensure that Assad government retained its power over the last three years of conflict.

Contradictions: Hezbollah, Assad’s apparatuses, and Iran

The recent announcement by Iranian officials arguing that the Islamic Republic does not wish to see President Bashar al-Assad stay in power indefinitely and that they are potentially open to other alternatives, comes at a time when Iranian leaders have evidently recognized that the Syrian oppositional groups, revolutionaries, and rebel groups will not surrender to Assad’s forces any time soon.

While Iranian leaders continue to support Assad’s government economically, Iran’s domestic economy has inflicted itself with high levels of inflation

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The country is divided into insurgent-controlled areas and government-controlled cities. Whenever the rebel groups are defeated in one part, they regroup, revise their plan, and prepare to fight the regime in another region.

Consequently, from the Iranian leaders’ perspectives, this platform conveys that the Syrian conflict can be an ongoing war for many years to come. If the Islamic Republic stands for Assad totally, it finds itself obliged to pay billions of dollars to the Syrian government every year and provide additional military, intelligence, and advisory assistance, with no guarantee of reimbursement or compensation.

The costs of the economic support might not be paid back as the two scenarios are unveiled: either Assad’s government will ultimately collapse or the war will be a protracted conflict similar to the Lebanese 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Although the Syrian government and leaders of Hezbollah are offering differing signals from the Islamic Republic, Iranian leaders view the situation from another prism.

Contrary to Iran, the Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian leaders declared that the Assad government does not face any threat from oppositional groups anymore. Nasrallah said: “The danger of the Syrian regime’s fall has ended.”

While Hezbollah and the Syrian government attempt to project the picture that tranquility and peace has come back to Syria (in order to reclaim their lost popularity at home), Tehran’s view and message appears to diverge from this because of its primary role in holding the economic burden.

Economic desperation of the Islamic Republic

While Iranian leaders continue to support Assad’s government economically, Iran’s domestic economy has inflicted itself with high levels of inflation (approximately 35 percent), a high rate of unemployment, loss in oil export revenues, economic mismanagement of several administrations, negative economic growth, and its stock market has been in decline.

The Assad government’s weakness and incapability to wholly crack down on the oppositional groups and stabilize the country, has been a critical economic burden and heavy load for the Iranian government, while there is no final warranty that Assad might score the final victory, win over, and pay back the debt. Iranian leaders’ ongoing economic, geopolitical, military, intelligence and advisory support for Assad has additionally ratcheted up the tension between the Islamic Republic and other Arab countries in the region as well as other world powers. This unconditional support has also worked to tarnish Iran’s popularity and legitimacy among ordinary people in the region, and domestically.

As Syria has become an economic burden and costly card for Tehran, Iranian leaders are desperate to find alternative options that would still serve their geostrategic, geopolitical, and hegemonic ambitions in the region.

In the next few months, Iranian leaders’ tactical shift would entail their outreach to other powers and Arab countries in the region. Nevertheless, it is paramount to comprehend the notion that although Tehran might agree to a plan where President Bashar al-Assad might not be the head of the state, this does not imply that the Islamic Republic would accept comprehensive change in the Syrian state formation.

As Abdollahian stated, although Tehran does not see Assad as staying in power indefinitely, they also do not accept a plan where extremists replace him. He pointed out, “we do not subscribe to the idea of using extremist forces and terrorism to topple Assad and the Syrian government.” Retaining the current state configuration, through an Alawite-dominated framework, would still be a fundamental and non-negotiable tenet for the Islamic Republic.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC, Harvard scholar, and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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