Iran’s marriage with Assad and the Alawite state
The Islamic Republic is not in a pleasant or comfortable position when economic factors and military manpower come into calculation
The Iran-U.S. rapprochement, the improving ties between the Islamic Republic and European countries as well as the nuclear deal between the six world powers (known as the P5+1) and Tehran, have raised a considerable amount of expectations towards the country.
Some of those expectations are that Iran is going to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis in Syria and that it will halt its military support for President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian forces.
Many of those who favor the nuclear deal argue that Tehran will change its regional and foreign policies regarding Syria and Assad. As the argument goes, this is due to the notion that Tehran is currently showing evidence of reintegrating in the international community and global financial system.
Recently, Tehran and Moscow have announced plans to resolve the crisis and civil war in Syria, and they appear to have a sudden interest in taking the lead in resolving the conflict. Moscow is offering a proposal for a transitional government and parliamentary elections. This plan is most likely being supported by Tehran as well.
Is Iran changing its geopolitical and strategic position on Syria? Will Iran accept a formation of a new government in Syria?
Several flaws exist in the above-mentioned argument wielded by those who point out that Tehran is going to change its position on the Syrian government or even on Assad.
First of all, the primary reason that Iranian leaders are attempting to bring the case of Syria to the negotiating table is not due to the notion the Tehran had a change of heart on the Syrian people and refugees, or because it has altered its national security priorities.
The Islamic Republic has been hemorrhaging billions of dollars into the Syrian government’s coffers in order to keep the current political establishment in power.
The Islamic Republic is not in a pleasant or comfortable position when economic factors and military manpower come into calculationDr. Majid Rafizadeh
Although Iran denies that it has forces on the ground in Syria, Tehran is regularly revealing the bodies of Iranian officers killed in Syria and the Iranian state media outlets mourn the death of Iranian officers who were killed in the war-torn nation. Iran, the leading patron and staunchest ally of Bashar al-Assad, has been assisting the Syrian government militarily, financially and politically.
As a result, the Islamic Republic is not in a pleasant or comfortable position when economic factors and military manpower come into calculation.
Notwithstanding being in an unpleasant financial situation, Tehran is not necessarily ready to fundamentally change its strategic and geopolitical calculation on Syria.
With the current nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic has more hope for receiving further financial incentives from selling gas, oil and gaining access to over 100 billion dollars’ worth of assets. Hence, Iran is not in a completely desperate position economically speaking.
In addition, although Iranian leaders point out that the Syrian people are the ones who decide the fate of Syria, any plan which comes from a state (Tehran and Moscow in this case) will represent the national, geopolitical, economic and strategic interests of those who put the plan forward.
Top-down plans will not represent the interests of the people on the ground - the Syrian citizens.
This is similar to the Sykes-Picot plan of great powers which drew boundaries in the region, based on the interests of those who put the plan forward rather than the citizens of those lands.
Iran will not abandon Assad or the Alawite state
Some scholars, policy analysts, and politicians argue that in order for Iran to save the billions of dollars and military manpower spent on Assad, the Islamic Republic might at least agree to a plan in which Assad would resign and peacefully live somewhere else until the end of his life, as long as the Syrian Alawite state remains in power.
It is accurate to argue that the Islamic Republic is not married to an individual, but to the state which preserves its national, geopolitical, ideological and economic interests.
Nevertheless, this argument fails to recognize the fact that to Iranian leaders, Assad is not only an individual who can be replaced by someone else, but he is an indispensable part of the Syrian state; he embodies the domination of the Alawites in the political establishment.
The removal of Assad from power will be a strong blow to the Syrian government and a moral boost to the oppositional and rebel groups. Iranian leaders have also witnessed that resignations of leaders in other Arab countries which went through turmoil which led to empowerment of opposition groups and the incitement of full-fledged revolution.
Knowing this, why Iran is offering plans at this point? The Islamic Republic is attempting to reintegrate in the global financial system and the international community for economic and geopolitical reasons.
In addition Iranian leaders attempt to project the Islamic Republic to the Western powers as the major player in the Middle East and as a constructive player in order to gain the trust of the West, lessen criticism about Iran’s role in Syria and the increasing numbers of refugees, and for the purpose of tipping the balance of power against Arab Sunni states and in favor of Tehran.
Iranian leaders are engaging in cosmetic diplomatic, tactical and political moves to achieve the aforementioned objectives.
Whatever benefits to other countries may be projected on the surface, what lies beneath is different. This does not mean that Iran is making strategic changes, but only tactical ones.
Therefore, Iran’s longstanding slogan of “Neither East nor West, but the Islamic Republic!” has now changed into a one in which the Islamic Republic is attempting to gain the favor of both the East and the West, through calculated tactical changes in order to serve Iran’s geopolitical, national, security, economic and strategic interests.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh
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