Ray Takeyh is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Guardians of the Revoltion: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs, he traces the course of Iranian policy since the 1979 revolution. In the excerpt below we learn about the relationship between Iran and Syria.
Among the most enduring yet anomalous alliances in the Middle East is the Syrian-Iranian relationship. On the surface it may seem improbable for a Shiite regime determined to redeem the region for the forces of religious virtue and a secular state devoted to pan-Arabism to come together. Yet a series of shared antagonisms led both sides to overlook the incongruity of their alliance and collaborate on a range of critical issues…In the end, a strategically opportunistic Hafiz al-Asad would find the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini an uneasy partner.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution came at an opportune time for the Syrian regime… The Camp David Accords had led Egypt’s defection from the struggle against Israel and left Syria to face a strengthened Jewish state on its periphery. In Damascus the fear was that the Reagan administration was hoping to facilitate additional peace treaties… In the meantime, the perennially bad relations between the two Ba’athist parties governing Syria and Iraq had only worsened amid charges of interference in each other’s internal politics. Through its willingness to oppose Syria’s Israeli and Iraqi nemeses, Iran’s revolution altered the Middle East’s political configuration. The Islamic Republic’s embrace of anti-Americanism as a core element of its foreign policy distanced Tehran not only from the United States but also from the conservative Arab states, which were wary of Syria. In one fell swoop, the Middle East’s balance of power changed, leading Damascus to escape its insularity and become a more critical player in Arab politics.
For an Islamic Republic determined to both wage war against Iraq and pursue a harsher policy toward Israel, the alliance with Syria proved particularly valuable. The Asad regime’s willingness to supply arms to Tehran came at a time when the American-led embargo was depleting Iran’s arsenal. Moreover, an alignment with an Arab state fractured the wall of Arab solidarity and diminished Saddam’s ability to portray his war as a contest between Arabs and Persians. The alliance also offered Iran a reach beyond its borders, as Tehran suddenly had access to Lebanon and could more vigorously pursue its anti-Israel campaign. In perverse manner, in order for Iran to wage its Islamist crusade against Israel and displace Saddam’s regime, it had to forge a relationship with a state whose internal composition must have been anathema to the mullahs.
The ensuing association with Syria reflected the Islamic Republic’s propensity to prioritize its ideological antagonisms. The contradictions between an Islamist regime predicating its policy on pristine religious values and a secular, Ba’athist state became starkly evident during the 1982 rebellion in the city of Hamah, when Asad viciously decimated his fundamentalist opposition…Iran’s response to the massacre was to denounce the Muslim Brotherhood “as a gang carrying out the Camp David conspiracy against Syria.” A theocratic state ostensibly devoted to propagating its divine message not only stood by as fellow fundamentalists were annihilated but offered words of support to the offending regime as well. …this was a question of priority. Waging war again Iraq and weakening Israel ranked higher than the fate of Syria’s beleaguered Islamists.
The strategic tensions underlying the Syria-Iran alliance became evident in Iraq. For Iran, the alliance proved nothing but beneficial. Beyond gaining an important source of weaponry, Syria’s closure of Iraq’s oil pipeline, which traversed its territory, inflicted an economic penalty on Baghdad. The support of a major Arab nationalist state allowed some of the Persian Gulf sheikdoms to hedge and not sever their ties to Tehran…It is arguable that, without the Arab cover provided by Damascus, these sheikdoms could not have disregarded the nearly uniform Arab consensus for isolation of Tehran. As Rafsanjani recalled with gratitude, Asad did not disassociate “himself from a country that advocated Islam because this country is not an Arab country.”
As the war dragged on, the Syrian regime found it had to reconsider its approach to its problematic ally. In Damascus, the initial justification for supporting Iran was that Saddam’s invasion had diverted the resources of an important Arab country from the main struggle against Israel. Thus, Baghdad’s opportunistic designs were actually damaging the Arabs and constituted yet another defection from the main anti-Israeli cause. Saddam’s invasion was even more egregious give that the state he targeted was willing to devote its national power to battling Israel. It was Saddam who had destroyed the “eastern front” and prevented both Iran and Iraq from concentrating their resources on Jerusalem. Beyond such assertions, Syria sought to further rationalize its alliance by suggesting that its close ties to the Islamic Republic gave it sufficient credibility to mediate the conflict and even impose restraint on the theocracy.
Syria’s claims became more difficult to justify as Iran appeared dogmatic in its pursuit of the war and seemed prone to expand the conflict into the Persian Gulf. As a champion of Arab nationalism, Damascus could ill afford a prolonged alliance with a country that disregarded Arab sensibilities and was determined to dispatch its armies into Iraq and disrupt the Gulf commerce…Moreover, Asad’s reliance on aid from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait meant that he could not always ignore the estrangement of the oil-rich sheikdoms…The tensions between supporting Iran and sustaining a place in the Arab system led Damascus to oppose certain Iranian measures. After 1982, when Iran successfully evicted Iraq from its territory and took the offensive, Syria disapproved of extending the war to the Gulf states and went so far as to promise to support Kuwait against Iranian aggression. By the mid-1980s, Syria had come to oppose Iran’s appropriation of Arab lands, a policy that was articulated in a variety of Arab summits and emphasized to Iranian emissaries. Had the war continued beyond 1988 or had Iran triumphed in the conflict, Asad might have been forced to make some fundamental choices and reassess his ties to the Islamic Republic…
…Nonetheless, the fact that the alliance has persisted for so long should not surprise us. Indeed, it reflects the Middle East’s basic inability to resolve its conflicts, the continuance of which often serves Iran’s larger strategic ends…