Foreign Policy / Iran

2013: A Tough Year for Iran Part 1 – Why the Syrian Crisis Matters

During the last decade the spectacular growth and development of Iran placed the Persian nation as a superpower in the Middle East and one of the most relevant actors on the international stage. However, 2012 was a challenging year for the country and 2013 promises to be even more turbulent. With an economic crisis developing, international pressure growing around its nuclear program, and upcoming controversial elections being held, 2013 will be a year of challenges and risks for the Persian giant of the Middle East.

Perhaps one of the biggest events that will occur for Iran in 2013 will be the long-awaited fall of the al-Assad regime in Syria. For the Persian nation, the course of action of this crisis represents a determinant episode for its national projects, security and stability, and a direct threat to its position as regional leader and superpower.

Why does the Syrian crisis matter to Iran?

Although powerful, rich and intimidating, Iran is not very popular in the Middle East. In fact, Syria is its only regional ally left in the region, since the relation with Turkey deteriorated significantly due to growing differences regarding the Syrian crisis by the end of 2012. The friendship that flourished in the context of the Iran- Iraq war between both nations has been based on an ongoing dynamic of mutual support, cooperation and dependence that lies upon mutual understanding and the sharing of common goals, projects and perspectives for the region. Therefore, it is a priority for Iran’s regional agenda to keep its only ally in the region alive.

On the other hand, Iran’s current relation with Syria and, more specifically, with the al-Assad family, plays a central role in the ambitious national project of regional leadership that Iran has pursued in the Middle East since the end of the war with Iraq. Iran and Syria share a common philosophy and belief system regarding western presence in the Middle East and Israel’s existence, and their common interests have created a solid alliance that allows them to pursue their ambitious regional projects, which none of them could achieve alone. Another important factor for Iran is the privileged geostrategic situation that Syria has in the region, sharing borders with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, and a privileged access to the Mediterranean Sea. Having an ally in this particular location has allowed Iran to nourish the relation with Hamas, provide support to Lebanon, sustain the constant fight against Israel and maintain the ongoing campaign against western presence – projects that would definitely be impossible to sustain without a strategic ally such as Syria.

In this sense, Iran’s main concern is not only preserving stability in the region and in Syria, but also maintaining the Ba’ath party in power. The Islamic Republic has sustained a mutually beneficial relation with Syria since the 80’s mainly because of its affinity with the Ba’ath party, which has ruled since 1963 through the active participation of the al- Assad Family. The relation with this party is based on two main aspects: the religious similarity and their common interests in the region. The Ba’ath Party is dominated by Syria’s Shiite minority and rules a mostly Sunnite populated nation, while Iran is known for having the largest Shiite population in the Middle East. Today, Iran’s principal interest is to keep the Ba’ath party in power, but the development of the Syrian crisis in the last months makes it look like it will hit rock bottom in 2013. Analysts agree on the fact that al-Assad’s regime is no longer capable of holding on to power for more than a couple of months. The fall of the Ba’ath party would represents an opportunity for a different group to seize power, and due to the fact that Sunnites and Kurds mostly dominate the Syrian population, it is very likely that the next group in power will not be a friend to Iran.

For the Islamic Republic, the fall of Syria’s Ba’ath party and the probable rise of a new group to power would mean the loss of its only ally left in the Middle East, an act that translates into its complete isolation in the region, the loss of its privileges in Syrian territory, ones that are key for Iran’s projects regarding Hamas and Israel, and an important strike to its arms and weapons trade business. During 2013, the instability in Syria and the fall of the al-Assad regime could represent the greatest impasse for the development of the national project of a regional leadership that Iran has been patiently constructing in the last two decades.