Image: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
STR  /  AP
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers his speech in a public gathering in Tehran on Saturday. Iran's supreme leader says he will intervene in government affairs again after reinstating the country's powerful intelligence minister to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet.
By
updated 4/23/2011 6:38:48 PM ET 2011-04-23T22:38:48

When Syria's president visited Iran late last year, he received a heroes' medal and spoke about unbreakable bonds in a ceremony broadcast on national television.

Now, a nervous leadership in Iran has imposed a media blackout on Bashar Assad's struggle against a swelling Syrian uprising and Tehran faces the unsettling prospect of losing its most stalwart ally in the region.

The Islamic Republic managed to choke off its homegrown "Green Revolution" after the disputed June 2009 presidential election. But now it is being dragged into the uprisings sweeping across the Middle East and stirring unrest in Syria, and unfriendly neighbor Bahrain.

On the deadliest day of the Syrian rebellion Friday — when more than 100 people were killed by authorities — President Barack Obama accused Assad of seeking Iranian help to use "the same brutal tactics" unleashed against demonstrators almost two years ago.

For Iran, its ties with Syria represent far more than just a rare friend in a region dominated by Arab suspicions of Tehran's aims. Syria is Iran's great enabler: a conduit for aid to powerful anti-Israel proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Should Assad's regime fall, it could rob Iran of a loyal Arab partner in a region profoundly realigned by uprisings demanding more freedom and democracy.

"Iran and Syria represent the anti-US axis in the region. In that respect, Iran wants to ensure that Syria remains an ally," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "The problem is that Iran's foreign policy has become quite inconsistent."

Story: Syria: Nation at a crossroads

Iran may still have other options in the region. It has ties with Iraq's Shiite-led government, growing bonds with Turkey and is making overtures to post-revolutionary Egypt.

But the uprisings also have sharply boosted hostility toward Iran from the wealthy — and increasingly influential — Gulf Arab states that believe Tehran is encouraging Shiite protesters in Bahrain and elsewhere.

Iran's ambitions to expand its influence in the region could suffer a "critical backward step" if Assad's regime is toppled, said Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

"Egypt's revolution could be considered a strategic loss perhaps for the West," he said, "but a change in Syria would seriously rearrange the security order in the core of the Middle East and could leave Iran with an even bigger loss."

Image: Bashar Assad
Vahid Salemi  /  AP
Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, leaves after he is awarded with Iran's highest national medal by his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a ceremony in Tehran on Oct. 2.

Assessing Iran's strategy on Syria is difficult. The ruling clerics have banned domestic media from mentioning the revolt. There have been no open debates in Iran's parliament and leaders — including outspoken President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — have been extremely cautious in their remarks on Syria.

Iran has used its mouthpieces to the rest of the world as forums to address Syria's battles and promote Tehran's positions.

State-run English-language Press TV offers straightforward coverage with comment sections that include a mix of both pro-Assad messages and calls for his regime to go. Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television on Saturday quoted the foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, as rejecting Obama's claim of Iranian aid to Assad in his time of crisis.

In a speech Saturday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the "Islamic awakening" around the region — a reference to Iran's frequent claims that the rebellions draw inspiration from Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. He did not mention Syria, but instead pointed to other uprisings in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.

And, in doing so, Khamenei underscored Iran's policy dilemma.

Iran's leadership has harshly denounced the crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni monarchy against the island kingdom's majority Shiites, calling a Saudi-led Gulf force that went in to back the rulers a Sunni "occupation." Protests in Tehran have included students hurling firebombs at the Saudi embassy earlier this month.

In response, the Gulf's six-nation political bloc warned Iran to stop meddling in Arab affairs, and Bahrain's foreign minister said the Gulf troops will remain indefinitely to counter Tehran's "sustained campaign" in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Iran "cannot remain indifferent and passive onlookers in the face of oppressive engagement of arrogant powers with the people" of Bahrain, Khamenei told the crowds.

But no such calls have been made on behalf of Syria's protesters, who again faced deadly gunfire by security forces on Saturday that killed 11 more people.

Iran is not the only nation balancing interests against demands for change. The U.S. has backed calls to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but has been far more muted with the revolts in strategic allies Yemen and Bahrain. Iran also is desperate to keep its image from sustaining further blows among Arab neighbors.

"The Iranians are worrying a lot about Arab public opinion," said Hamid. "The mood in the region is shifting against Assad and Iran could be stuck on the wrong side of that. They are sort of trapped."

Story: Syria: Nation at a crossroads

There is a way out, however, some say.

Iran is likely to open talks with opposition groups if it appears that Assad is doomed, said Meir Javedanfar, an analyst on Iranian affairs based in Israel. Iran has too much at stake in Syria to risk being cut out if Assad is ousted: huge Iranian investments in Syrian projects such as an auto assembly plant and a cement factory and possible loss of influence over Hezbollah and Hamas.

"When it comes to looking after its own interests, the Iranian regime is very pragmatic, especially since they know that Assad would do the same to them if the shoe was on the other foot," said Javedanfar. "When it comes to choosing between friendship and its own interests, to Iran's rulers the former is easily expendable."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Brutal crackdowns on protesters reported in Syria

Explainer: Syria: Land of unrest

  • Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
    Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protester waves a Syrian flag as she looks to the crowd in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday.

    Syrian President Bashar Assad is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule in this predominantly Sunni country, which is ruled by minority Alawites.

    In latest developments, Syria's government approved lifting the country's nearly 50-year-old state of emergency to meet a key demand of anti-government protesters, but also issued a stern warning to demonstrators to call off their challenges to Assad's hard-line rule.

    Scores have been killed in towns across the nation as demonstrations have spread, prompting Assad to send the army out on the streets.

    Assad has blamed "conspirators" for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his rule.

    "Syria stands at a crossroads," said Aktham Nuaisse, a leading human rights activist.
    Following are some key issues and facts about Syria.

    (Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, World Bank, State Department, CIA, www.trust.org)

  • Timeline

    msnbc.com

    Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition. Here's a timeline of events since the protests started earlier this month.

    April 19
    The government passed a law lifting emergency rule, enforced since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition.

    March 16
    Security forces break up a silent gathering in Marjeh square in Damascus of about 150 protesters who held up pictures of imprisoned relatives and friends.

    The next day human rights group Amnesty International condemns the violent crackdown by security forces. Witnesses told the rights group at least 30 people were arrested.

    March 18
    Security forces kill three protesters in Deraa, residents say, in the most violent response to protests against Syria's ruling elite. The demonstrators were taking part in a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.

    Smaller protests take place in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias.

    March 20
    Crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in Deraa, residents say. "No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom!" marchers chant.

    March 21
    In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces line the streets but do not confront thousands of mourners marching at the funeral of a protester killed in Deraa. March 22 - Hundreds of people march in Deraa and Nawa, two southern Syrian towns, demanding freedom. It is the fifth straight day of demonstrations challenging the government.

    March 23
    Syrian forces kill six people in an attack on protesters in the Omari mosque complex in Deraa, and later open fire on hundreds of youths marching in solidarity.

    An official statement says later that President Bashar al-Assad has sacked Deraa regional governor Faisal Kalthoum.

    March 24
    Assad orders the formation of a committee to raise living standards and study scrapping the emergency law in place in Syria for the last 48 years, his adviser says.

    March 25
    At least 200 people march in Damascus and there are reports of at least 23 dead around the country, including for the first time in Damascus.

    — In Deraa, thousands march in funerals for some of the dead, chanting "Freedom." Witnesses say protesters haul down a statue of Assad's father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before security forces open fire from buildings.

    — Amnesty International says at least 55 people have been killed in Deraa in the last week.

    — Hundreds of people chant "freedom" in Hama, where in 1982 thousands of people were killed by Syrian security forces in a crackdown on Islamists.

    March 26
    In an attempt to placate protesters, Assad frees 260 prisoners, and 16 more the next day.

    — Twelve people are killed in protests in the town of Latakia. Assad deploys the army there the next day.

    March 27
    The army beefs up its presence in Deraa, focal point of bloody protests across the country.

    — Assad is expected to address the nation shortly, officials say.

    March 28
    Armed forces fire into the air to disperse a pro-democracy protest in Deraa as the crowd chanted "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws."

    — Amnesty cites unconfirmed reports as saying 37 more people had been killed since March 25 in protests in Damascus, Latakia, Deraa and elsewhere.

    March 29
    Government resigns. Assad appoints Naji al-Otari, head of the government that stepped down, as the new caretaker prime minister.

    — Thousands of Syrians hold pro-government rallies after two weeks of pro-democracy protests in which at least 60 people have died.

  • Nation glance

    Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
    A rally after Friday prayers outside the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

    Population: 22 million

    Ethnic groups: Mostly Arabs, with Kurd, Turk and Armenian minorities. Syria also hosts a large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Religion: Mainly Sunni Muslim, but also Alawites, Shia and Ismailites, and minority Christian denominations.

    Capital: Damascus.

    Language: Arabic is the official language. Minority groups also speak their own languages.

    Geography: Syria borders Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west.

  • Economy

    Image: Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters
    Hussein Malla  /  AP
    Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters outside a taxi widow car in Damascus, Syria.

    Syria had taken measures to lift restrictions on business after four decades of failed Soviet-style economic policies and hoped to attract $44 billion, or 83 percent of its GDP, in private investment over the next five years.

    U.S. sanctions imposed in 2004 over Syria's role in Iraq and its backing for Hezbollah and Hamas have curbed Western investment. Together with a drought in eastern Syria, the sanctions have made the task of raising living standards and finding jobs for the fast growing population even harder.

    Syria's economy will grow by 6 to 7 percent in 2011, up from expected growth of 5 to 6 percent in 2010, according to the central bank Governor Adeeb Mayaleh.

  • Relations

    The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

    Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

    But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

    Israel
    Even though Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, many in Israel are fearful that a collapse of Assad's regime might imperil decades of quiet along the shared border.

    "That has been the working assumption in Israel for years: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Eyal Zisser, director of the Middle East Studies department at Tel Aviv University. "It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?"

Data: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments