By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Iran is keeping a wary eye on Syria, where antiregime protests have been going on for the past five months, despite a crackdown that has reportedly left more than 2,000 dead. Syria is Iran's main strategic partner in the Middle East. Analysts say the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad's regime would be a serious blow to the Islamic republic.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (R) with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad in Tehran (October 2010)
The rebellion in Syria has led Iran to take diplomatic measures -- and reportedly financial and military steps, as well -- to help Assad remain in power. Assad's troubles are also fueling internal debate in Iran about how to deal with the uprising in Syria.
Earlier this week, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called for Syria to recognize the "legitimate" rights of its people -- a sign of Tehran's growing unease. Salehi's statement on August 27 echoed comments by Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad two days earlier, who said that the Syrian people and the government should come together to reach an understanding.
Paris-based analyst and researcher Mohammad Javad Akbarein believes Iran is not worried about the rights of ordinary Syrians, however. Akbarein says Iran's shift is motivated by concern about its own interests.
"The fall of Assad will create a strategic vacuum for the Islamic republic that will not be easy to fill," Akbarein says. "The Islamic republic prefers at any cost -- as much as it can economically and militarily bear -- to stand with Bashar al-Assad and undermine those opposed to him."
The Iranian officials' comments are also aimed at improving Tehran's tarnished image among Syrians.
Protesters in Syria have reportedly burned Iranian flags and chanted slogans against the Islamic republic in retaliation for its steadfast support for Assad. The YouTube videos of those protests have been widely circulated among members of Iran's opposition, who have shared them on social networking sites, including Facebook.
"[The Iranian authorities] want to decrease the hatred and anger that has been created in Syrian society toward Iran because of its unequivocal support for Assad," Akbarein says. "They also make these comments to protect their interests in the event that Assad's regime collapses."
On September 1, Ahmad Avaei, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security Commission, criticized his country's support for Syria.
"The fact is that our unconditional support for Syria was not right, since those who staged the protests were religious people, and their protests were legitimate," Avaei said in an interview with the Khabaronline website.
Tehran initially passed over the antigovernment protests in Syria in silence. Iranian officials publicly ignored the protests while praising the revolts in other Arab countries as part of an "Islamic awakening." The Iranian state media also remained silent about the street demonstrations against Assad.
But the scale of the protests and the criticism at home forced Iran to change its stance. Iranian officials began acknowledging the demonstrations in Syria, while claiming that they were the result of a foreign conspiracy.
If the situation in Syria deteriorates and Iran's position appears to be endangered, then the country's policies could change, says Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst based in Israel.
"For the Islamic republic, the priority is the interest and the well-being of the regime," Javedanfar says. "And if the situation becomes intolerable and Assad definitely seems to be on his way out, then I think the Iranian establishment will start try to reach out to the opposition members in order to have some kind of a dialogue with them."
Iran cannot afford to have a postrevolution Syria which is its enemy, he says.
Iranian journalist Shahram Rafizadeh believes that, for now, Iran's main policy is to make sure the embattled Syrian president remains in office.
"Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards are very much willing to support Assad and keep him in power with any kind of support," Rafizadeh says. "It seems that they're even ready to pay a heavy price to [reach their goal]."
Yet he predicts that Tehran could also make overtures to the opposition as a way of hedging its bets.
Last week, Iran announced the appointment of Mohammad Raouf Sheibani -- a deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs and a former ambassador to Lebanon -- as Tehran's new ambassador to Damascus.
His appointment is seen as an attempt to strengthen Iran's presence in Syria and to boost its support for Assad, who is facing international calls to step down.
"[Sheibani] has close ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which means that [Iranian leaders] want to support Assad's regime right up until the last moment," Rafizadeh says. "Given his background, it seems that his second mission is to find a foothold for the Islamic republic among the opposition in case Assad falls."
Iran's concern about the violence in Syria seems to have been exacerbated by the international military intervention in Libya that helped rebels there end the rule of Muammar Qaddafi.
Iran's foreign minister warned on August 27 that the power vacuum in Syria could have unpredictable regional implications.
He also said that NATO will get bogged down in a "quagmire" if it launches a military attack against Syria.
A commentary posted this week on Irdiplomacy, a website run by former senior Iranian diplomats, said that Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea are involved in efforts to "neutralize moves" against Assad. The report said the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, who is due to travel to North Korea and China over the weekend, plans to discuss the crisis in Syria with officials in Pyongyang and Beijing.
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