The violent confrontation between Bashar Assad’s regime and opposition forces, now fifteen months old, has generated much concern in Iran. The collapse of the regime would present a serious threat to Iran’s strategic interests. Syria has been one of Iran’s closest and most important allies since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, and the fall of the Assad regime would hamper Iran’s ability to project power into the eastern Mediterranean-Levant region.
Iran has therefore provided support to the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian uprising to help its ally stay in power. According to U.S. and European officials, members of Syrian opposition groups, and others, Iran is providing material support to the Syrian government to assist in the crackdown and is advising Syrian leaders on “best practices” for suppressing the protests, an area in which it has a fair amount of experience.
Iran has repeatedly denied accusations of any such involvement. While it is difficult to determine the extent and nature of Iran’s involvement in Syria from the information that is publicly available, it is reasonable to assume that Iran is indeed aiding the Assad regime, given Iran’s overriding interest in its survival. Still, it is not clear if Iranian forces are actually present in Syria or how important Iranian aid is to the Assad regime.
Iran’s denials of involvement are coupled with consistent accusations that other outside parties are fueling the Syrian uprising. Tehran has repeatedly announced its opposition to foreign interference in Syria, which reflects both Iran’s interest in seeing Assad remain in power and Iran’s fear of the precedent that foreign intervention in Syria might set.
Iran’s continuing support for Assad has made it difficult for Iran to maintain its narrative of the Arab Spring as an Islamic Awakening inspired by Iran’s own 1979 Islamic Revolution. According to this narrative, in expressing opposition to their leaders, Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, and Libyan protestors were rejecting not only their own autocratic leaders but also America’s predominant position in the Middle East, Israeli hegemony, and secularism—all tenets that remain central to the Islamic Republic’s worldview.
Though those uprisings did not neatly fit the mold into which Iran was trying to force them, Iran’s characterization of them was sufficiently connected to reality so as to allow Iran to benefit from it, domestically and regionally. Moreover, Iran’s interests were in fact served by the toppling of the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan regimes. The Syrian uprising, however, emanating from the country’s Sunni majority against its Alawi (proto-Shi’i) rulers, threatens to irrevocably mar Tehran’s Islamic Awakening narrative.
It is for these reasons that Iran has insisted that the protests in Syria are the work of foreign interests and that Assad must remain in power in order to preserve the resistance against Israel. Characterizing the unrest in Syria in such a way has allowed Iranian leaders to simultaneously support Assad and maintain the viability of their Islamic Awakening narrative.
Though the inconsistency of the Iranian position is apparent, it is not remarkable. The events of the Arab Spring, and particularly the protracted conflict in Syria, have challenged the interests and values of all the countries in or interested in the Middle East. Iran is not the only one of these countries that has struggled to reconcile its national interests with the values and beliefs its leaders use to justify their actions.
However, in Iran’s case, it is the regime, not just the leaders, who are threatened by an inability to align interests with beliefs. For while the fall of the Assad regime would be a significant blow to Iran’s ability to project power in the region, the damage done to its Islamic Awakening narrative might be even greater. The inability of Iran’s leaders to martial the ideological tenets of that narrative—Islamic values, Iranian independence, opposition to Western influence in the region, support for the fight against Israel—would represent a severe blow to the Islamic Republic itself.
Annie Tracy Samuel is a predoctoral research fellow in the Belfer Center’s International Security Program, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Tel Aviv University (TAU), and a junior research fellow at TAU’s Center for Iranian Studies. Her doctoral dissertation examines the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iran-Iraq War and analyzes how the Guards have documented the war and their roles in the conflict.