2011-09-23

Iranian optimism challenged by struggles in Syria

Vying for influence, Turkey and Iran remain at odds over Arab Spring.

By Aaron Stein for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 23/09/11

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Eager to capitalise on the opportunities posed by the Arab Spring, Tehran has sought to shore up ties with the news regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, while also desperately fighting to ensure Syria's Bashar al-Assad maintains his tenuous grip on power.

  • Iran's support for the regime in Syria has clashed with Turkish calls to end violence. [Reuters]

    Iran's support for the regime in Syria has clashed with Turkish calls to end violence. [Reuters]

"Iran considers the Arab world revolts as its big moment to at last have the kind of regional influence the country has sought since the revolution," Century Foundation's Iran programme Director Geneive Abdo tells SES Türkiye.

Iran has quite successfully taken advantage of its ethnic and religious ties in Iraq and Lebanon to boost its influence in the government and amongst the clerics. "They hope they can repeat this in other countries in the region, post Arab awakening," according to Abdo.

Iran's leadership sees the Arab revolutions through the prism of its 1979 Islamic Revolution, believing that they are a challenge to the Western-created and backed international order. More broadly, the revolts are a sign of the moral, economic and political decline of the West, Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, tells SES Türkiye.

"They have maintained a remarkably optimist worldview, which they continually interpret as the strength of the Islamic Republic and the West fading. This conviction informs and guides their foreign policy."

However, Iranian optimism about the Arab revolutions was put on hold after the protests in Syria began threatening the Assad regime, which has been Iran's most important ally in the region.

"Syria was the first Arab country to recognise the Islamic Revolution and since then the two countries have enjoyed a strategic alliance," Bilal Saab, a visiting fellow at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, explains.

The big casualty of Iran's support for Assad has been its relations with Turkey -- a regional neighbour whose interests in Iranian natural gas, more robust trade ties and closer defence co-operation against Kurdish separatists led it to mend their once frosty relationship.

"Turkey was optimistic it could have a good ongoing relationship with Tehran," Abdo said. "The Turks have been taken aback by how the relationship has deteriorated in recent months."

Despite both agreeing at the outset that Assad should remain in power, Turkey has expressed its dismay over Assad's continued crackdowns and has sharpened its tone dramatically.

Iran, on the other hand, is "convinced that the uprisings are a Western plot, similar to the one that they faced in 2009", according to Clawson. "The Iranian leadership thinks that the foreign press and foreign governments are trying to whip up a coloured revolution, that is to say an artificial movement that then threatens to quickly overthrow the government."

Eager to prevent similar protests in Iran, the clerical leadership has clamped down on the country's simmering opposition movement.

"From their point of view, they don't need the Turks talking about the human rights violations in Syria or allowing the opposition to meet in Turkey because it aids the uprising that they are against," according to Abdo.

Given the dynamics of the Arab Spring and the current geo-political realities, Iran and Turkey are now, along with Saudi Arabia, the only two players that have leverage over regional politics, according to Saab.

"Right now, they both control the political chips in the region and they know it."

How the Iranians or Turks plan to cash in has yet to be determined, but for now the two have found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian issue.

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