In Shift, Iran's President Calls for End to Syrian Crackdown
For years, posters celebrating the decades-old alliance joining Syria and Iran festooned the streets and automobiles of the Syrian capital -- the images of Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embroidered with roses and daffodils.
But that alliance is now strained, and on Thursday, President Ahmadinejad of Iran became the most recent, and perhaps the most unexpected, world leader to call for President Assad to end his violent crackdown of an uprising challenging his authoritarian rule in Syria.
When the Arab Spring broke out, upending the regional order, Iran seemed to emerge a winner: its regional adversary, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was ousted from power and its most important ally, Syria, was emboldened.
But the popular demands for change swept into Syria, and now, as Mr. Assad's forces continue to shoot unarmed demonstrators, Iran sees its fortunes fading on two fronts: its image as a guardian of Arab resistance has been battered, and its most important regional strategic ally is in danger of being ousted.
Even while it has been accused of providing financial and material support for Mr. Assad's crackdown, Iran has increased calls for Syria to end the violence and reform its political process, a formula Tehran apparently hopes will repair its image and, if heeded, possibly bolster Mr. Assad's standing.
"Regional nations can assist the Syrian people and government in the implementation of essential reforms and the resolution of their problems," Mr. Ahmadinejad said in an interview in Tehran, according to his official Web site. Other press accounts of the interview with a Portuguese television station quoted him as also saying, "A military solution is never the right solution," an ironic assessment from a man whose own questionable re-election in 2009 prompted huge street demonstrations that were put down with decisive force.
The collapse of the Assad government would be a strategic blow to Shiite-majority Iran, cutting off its most important bridge to the Arab world while empowering its main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and its increasingly influential competitor, Turkey, both Sunni-majority nations. Iran would also lose its main arms pipeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon, further undermining its ambition to be the primary regional power from the Levant to Pakistan.
Not long ago, Iran and its Arab allies like Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were seen as folk heroes to many Arabs for their confrontational stance toward the United States and Israel.
But Iran has suddenly found itself on the wrong side of the barricades.
"Assad's heroic image of resistance is being watered down," said Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and the author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future." "That's the problem for Iran and for Hezbollah. They are trying to find out how to have their cake and eat it, too."
Demonstrators clogging the streets from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria are demanding freedom and democracy, forcing Iran to openly struggle with the problem of how to endorse the revolutionary spirit while simultaneously buttressing its crucial strategic Arab ally.
"They don't fit into the framework of toppling dictators and democracy and all that," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Lebanon.
Yet many analysts say that the Iranians have tried to play both sides of the barricades, supporting their allies in Syria with all manner of aid while simultaneously voicing support for the revolutions elsewhere, initially calling them the offspring of their own 1979 revolution.
"It is mostly for the Arab gallery, rather than a tangible policy shift," said Cengiz Candar, a prominent Turkish columnist. "In terms of the Syrian opposition, there is nobody Iran can stand on in case the regime is replaced."
Iran has been helping Syria with everything from money to advice on controlling the Internet, analysts say, offering its expertise to help stave off the catastrophe that Mr. Assad's collapse would be for Tehran's regional ambitions. Aside from propping up Syria with billions of dollars, it has pressed others, including Iraq, to support Mr. Assad.
Syrian protesters take it as a matter of faith that security forces from both Iran and Hezbollah have been drawn into the fray, trading cellphone videos that are said to show Hezbollah fighters streaming across the border in black S.U.V.'s.
Given that the Assad government has had about 40 years to perfect the instruments of repression, most analysts believe that it does not really need men or much advice from the outside.
But in its ever more stringent sanctions against Syria, the European Union included the Quds force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, accusing it of providing "technical assistance, equipment and support to the Syrian security services to repress civilian protest movements."
Analysts are convinced that behind the scenes the Iranians are pushing for a tough line, suggesting that their repression of the 2009 democracy protests in Iran is the model to follow.
"Iran calling for Syria to dialogue rather than use force against its population is akin to Silvio Berlusconi telling Charlie Sheen not to womanize," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is a sharp critic of the Iranian leadership.
Analysts say the scale and the duration of the protests in Syria just became too great for the Iranians to ignore, and yet they still try.
"Muslim people in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and other countries are in need of this vigilance today," the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a recent sermon marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. "They must not let the enemies hijack the victories they have gained."
Then he talked about the oppression of people in Bahrain -- which is mainly Shiite -- before moving on to the famine in Somalia.
On the other hand, the constant focus on the potential repercussions of the uprisings clearly shows that Iran's leaders are worried. Not least among their worries is that the protests could set off renewed demonstrations at home, although aside from some environmental protests in the northwest, nothing significant has been reported.
There is also an increasingly vocal school of thought in Iran that says it has too much vested in the Assad government. Among other things, it has allowed regional competitors like Turkey, a largely Sunni country, to advance at the expense of Shiite Iran. The Iranians' minority status across much of the Arab world can make their religious credentials suspect to the majority -- who might accuse them of being a force for sectarianism.
"The reality of the matter is that our absolute support for Syria was a wrong policy," Ahmad Avaei, a member of Parliament, told the Web site Khabar Online. "The people protesting against the government in that country are religious people, and the protest movement there is a grass-roots movement."
At stake is Iran's image in the wider region, and its ability to add teeth to its claim to be upholding Arab and Muslim interests in confronting Israel.
"Iran wants to be perceived as the voice of the downtrodden in the Middle East, the one country that speaks truth to power," Mr. Sadjadpour said. "Their close rapport with the Assad regime undermines that image."