The Tehran-Damascus Axis

Discussion in 'News And Current Events' started by iraniam, Apr 26, 2011.

  1. iraniam Member


    When the Arab uprisings started in Tunisia this winter, there were no more enthusiastic cheerleaders than the Khomeinists in Tehran. Their cheering got louder when revolution spread to Egypt, and louder still when Libyans rose in revolt.
    But Tehran's cheering has begun to fade. The reason is that the revolt has spread to Syria, the mullahs' sole Arab ally.
    A sign that Tehran may be getting nervous came last week when the Islamic Majlis, Iran's ersatz parliament, published a report on "The Arab Revolution." The authors ask for "urgent action to protect our strategic interests" in case the regime of President Bashar Assad is toppled.
    What kind of action? Syrian opposition sources claim that Tehran has sent snipers to help Mr. Assad kill demonstrators. The regime used this tactic during the protests following the disputed presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. (Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who became the symbol of the pro-democracy uprising in Iran, was killed by one such sniper.) President Barack Obama has also spoken of Iran's possible involvement in Syria.

    Whether or not Tehran has sent snipers to prop up Mr. Assad, the Islamic Republic is bound by treaty to help him fight "any threats against Syria's security and stability." Tehran and Damascus first signed a military cooperation treaty in 1998. At the time, Iran's minister of defense, Adm. Ali Shamkhani, stated publicly that the treaty would also cover "intelligence and security issues" with regard to dissident armed groups. Since then the treaty has been refined and deepened on several occasions, most recently under Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2008.
    Syria is the only country with which the Iranian armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hold joint staff meetings at least once a year. Iran has also emerged as a major supplier of weapons and materiel to Syria, according to the official Iranian news agency IRNA.
    Iran started using the Assad regime as a means of dividing the Arabs in the 1970s, when the shah wanted to squeeze the Baathist regime in Iraq. To this end, he supplied Syria with cut-price oil and aid totalling $150 million in 1977.

    Brothers in arms: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Assad

    Under the mullahs, Syria retained its role in preventing the Arabs from ganging up against the then-fragile Islamic Republic. Throughout its eight-year war against Saddam Hussein, Iran benefited from Syrian support, including vital intelligence on Iraqi armed forces. As a gesture of goodwill, Tehran arranged for some mullahs to issue fatwas declaring the Alawite minority, to which the Assad family belongs, to be "part of Islam." Most Islamic scholars, on the other hand, have long regarded the esoteric Alawi sect as heretical.
    Iran and Syria also share an interest in Lebanon. Syrian despots have always dreamt of annexing Lebanon. And under the shah, Iran regarded itself as the protector of Lebanon's Shiite community.
    Under the mullahs, Lebanon has been recast as "our revolution's perimeter of defense," in the words of Gen. Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. In a speech in Tehran last month, Gen. Firuzabadi justified Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas in the Palestinian territories by underscoring the role that the two groups played in fighting "the Zionist enemy." And because of its geographical proximity, Syria plays a crucial role in channelling arms from Iran to both Hezbollah and Hamas.
    Iranian-Syrian cooperation in Lebanon has a long history. In the words of Iran's former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the countries worked together "to push the Americans out" with a suicide attack that killed 241 U.S. servicemen in 1983. In the decades that followed, Tehran and Damascus used Hezbollah in hostage-taking operations and assassinations of Western diplomats and Arab politicians.
    Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, Iran has expanded its presence in Syria significantly. At least 14 Iranian "Islamic Cultural Centres" have opened across Syria, and hundreds of mullah missionaries have been sent to introduce Iranian-style Shiism to Syrians. Similar tactics in Lebanon have succeeded in "Iranizing" a large chunk of the Lebanese Shiite community.
    The Assad regime has a larger strategic importance for the Islamic Republic. "We want to be present in the Mediterranean," Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech last month in Tehran, marking the arrival in the Syrian port of Latakia of a flotilla of Iranian warships. This was the first time since 1975 that Iranian warships had appeared in the Mediterranean.
    Indeed, Iran could build a presence in the Mediterranean through Syria and Lebanon. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already developed mooring facilities in the Syrian port as a prelude to what may be a full-scale air and naval base.
    Mr. Ahmadinejad, who believes that the United States is in historic retreat, sees Iran as the successor to the defunct Soviet Union as the principal global challenger to what he says is "a world system, imposed by Infidel powers." The loss of Syria would puncture many of Mr. Ahmadinejad's aspirations.

    Over the years, it is possible that Iran has built a network of contact and sympathy within the Syrian military and security services. It may now be using that network to encourage hardliners within the beleaguered Assad regime to fight on.
    From the start, Tehran media have labelled the Syrian uprising "a Zionist plot," the term they used to describe the pro-democracy movement in Iran itself. In 2009, the mullahs claimed that those killed in the streets of Tehran and Tabriz were not peaceful demonstrators but "Zionist and Infidel" agents who deserved to die. The Assad clan is using the same vicious vocabulary against freedom lovers in Syria as snipers kill them in the streets of Damascus, Deraa and Douma.
    Mr. Taheri is the author of "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution" (Encounter, 2009).
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