Iran has pushed its involvement in Syria’s civil war to the highest level yet as it seeks to strengthen its “Axis of Resistance” against both its regional rivals and global opponents, such as Israel and the United States.
Feeling itself under attack on many fronts, Iran launched a diplomatic initiative this week intended to redress the balance between Shia Iran and its cohorts Syria and Hezbollah, on one hand, and the alliance of several Sunni Muslim countries that stand opposed to Iranian adventurism.
As Iran vowed its support for the regime of its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian government launched a long-anticipated ground assault against rebel forces in Aleppo, following several days of heavy bombardment of rebel-held areas.
As if to motivate the regime forces for just this occasion, Iran dispatched to Syria this week one of its most influential emerging leaders – Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council and the man responsible for the country’s nuclear file. He told Syria’s fighters (and Syria’s opponents) why this battle and this conflict are so important.
“What is happening in Syria,” he said, “is not an internal issue but a conflict between the Axis of Resistance on one hand, and the regional and global enemies of this axis on the other.”
As Iran sees it, a real schism has emerged, pitting the Shia axis of Iran, Syria and the militant Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah against the alliance of Sunni states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey – along with Israel and the United States on the other.
And this schism, Tehran believes, is the number one threat against it.
Be assured, Mr. Jalili announced in Damascus this week, “Iran will not tolerate, in any form, the breaking of the Axis of the Resistance, of which Syria is an intrinsic part.”
“These are the most strident statements we have yet heard about Iran’s support for Syria,” said Mohamed Marandi, a professor of political science at Tehran University, currently visiting the American University of Beirut (AUB). Mr. Jalili was making it clear that “this is a major battle, not a minor war.”
“As far as Iran is concerned, Syria is its first line of defence in this region-wide conflict,” said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political science at AUB. It doesn’t want to lose it. “Victory for the [Saudi-backed] opposition in Syria puts Saudi Arabia and its jihadists one step closer to Iran,” he said.
Mr. Jalili, who many believe will be a candidate to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president next year, didn’t limit his mission this week to Syria. On Monday, he was in Lebanon for meetings with political leaders.
If Syria is Iran’s first line of defence against its enemies, then Lebanon, in which close to half of the population is Shia, is the second. With a government controlled by the militant Shia Hezbollah movement, Lebanon has become something of an ally to Iran – although the United States and Saudi Arabia have tried to discourage this tendency.
Mr. Jalili was in Lebanon “to push back against all the pressure Lebanon has been under from Saudi Arabia and the United States,” Prof. Marandi said
More than that, said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze, and a partner in the Hezbollah-led government, “[Jalili] made it clear that no matter what happens in Syria, Lebanon remains a missile launching pad for Iran.” (It has long been speculated that in the event of war between the Iranian Axis and its enemies, Hezbollah would launch its thousands of missiles against Israel.)
However, contrast all this fire and brimstone rhetoric from Mr. Jalili with the announcement, also this week, that Iranian President Ahmadinejad had accepted an invitation from Saudi Arabia to attend an Islamic conference next week in Riyadh. The decision is remarkable since Saudi Arabia is one of the “enemies” that Mr. Jalili condemned.
“Don’t read too much into that,” Prof. Marandi advised – Mr. Ahmadinejad is not going to offer the Saudis an olive branch.
There’s an old expression, he said: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. “There’s a lot to that saying in Iran.”
Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB, thinks Iran sees the end of the Assad regime coming into view and wants to try to improve its strategic position as best it can.
“Iran really is not looking to go to war,” Mr. Khouri said. “They are simply standing by their ally, who stood by them in the Iran-Iraq War.”
And, “they’re reacting against the sectarian rhetoric used against them,” he said. “They’re not going to send in 30,000 troops.”
If Iran does believes that the Assad regime is on its way out, it has good reason to want that exit to happen sooner rather than later. The longer it takes for the Syrian regime to collapse, the greater will be the scale of Sunni extremists operating in Syria.
As they are in Iraq, such jihadist groups are the Shia world’s greatest nightmare.
One thing is clear: Whatever happens in Syria, Iran is not going to give up its strong relationship with Hezbollah, nor allow the Shia movement to be weakened by the loss of its supplier in Syria.
“Hezbollah is the Queen on Iran’s chessboard,” said Mohamed Chatah, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington and foreign policy adviser to Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon’s Future Party.
“Hezbollah is more important to Iran than Syria is,” he said.