Syria and Iran: An Alliance Tested?
Jubin Goodarzi, a professor of international relations at Webster University in Geneva, presented his insights on the nature of the Syria-Iran alliance in light of recent changes in the Middle East and within the context of their long-standing relationship.
On May 9, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on "Syria and Iran: An Alliance Tested?" with Goodarzi. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, moderated the event.
Goodarzi outlined reasons why the Syria-Iran alliance is important, stating that it has great influence on the region, its longevity is unique, and it is often misunderstood. In expanding on its longevity, Goodarzi noted that the alliance is a defensive one, deriving its impetus from incidences of conflict and warfare such as the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Goodarzi emphasized that the alliance was reinvigorated as a result of increased U.S. presence in the region since Syria and Iran are both interested in undermining American influence.
Reviewing each country's interests, Goodarzi stated that Iran is focused primarily on expanding its interests through its influence in the Persian Gulf region, while Syria concentrates on promoting its own interests in the Levant. He noted that both countries also have parallel goals such as quelling U.S. power in the Middle East and expanding their influence in Lebanon. Goodarzi mentioned core priorities shared by the two, such as regime survival and national security, which result from the authoritarian nature of their governments. He listed specific Syrian goals of regaining the Golan Heights and exerting authority on Lebanon's affairs as examples of how Syria seeks to promote its security.
Goodarzi posited that the relationship between Iran and Syria can be understood best if one divides it into six stages from 1979 through the present. He noted that the alliance has been turbulent, cooperative, consolidated, and ambivalent throughout the three decades-long relationship. Goodarzi said that Syria was the dominant actor through the 1980s, the 1990s was a period of transition, and Iran has been more dominant in the 2000s because of the nuclear issue and its ability to manipulate oil prices.
In discussing the recent Arab uprisings, Goodarzi commented on the significance that they are taking place 20 years after the end of the Cold War. He stated that this amount of time was needed to usher in the influence of a new generation. Goodarzi also characterized the last two decades as plagued by corruption and stagnation in the Middle East and a time when educated and technologically connected youth are now responding to the widening gap between their unmet expectations and their bleak realities. Furthermore, Goodarzi mentioned that there is now a new space for political and personal expression, which had been previously monopolized by religious institutions.
With reference to Iran, Goodarzi spoke about increasing disillusionment within the power structure as a result of the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, as well as the recent disagreements between the president and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In discussing Syria, Goodarzi commented that President Bashar Al Assad enjoyed a degree of credibility before he ordered security forces to use violence against protesters. Goodarzi posited that even if Al Assad is able to stay in power, the previous status quo would be impossible to reestablish, and, thus, reforms would be needed. He also mentioned that there have been reports of Iranian support for the Syrian regime in its efforts to suppress dissent, which he said is plausible given Iran's vested interest in the stability of the Syrian regime for the viability of Iran's own ideological and foreign policy objectives.
By Sara Girgis, Middle East Program