Farnaz Fassihi

Posted by Farnaz Fassihi on August 31, 2011 in News Clips

BEIRUT—Iran's steadfast support for Syria's regime has rapidly eroded Tehran's credibility among Arabs, leaving the country with a foreign-policy dilemma as popular uprisings mount across the region.

Supporting President Bashar al-Assad will further diminish Tehran's already troubled standing in the region, political analysts say. But abandoning him would crumble Iran's platform in Syria.

"They've lost a lot of soft power and credibility, and the situation in Syria makes it worse," said Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There are new revolutions and heroes to look up to in the Middle East, and Iran is passé."

On Tuesday, activists said Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrators around the country, killing seven people, including a 13-year-old boy. The violence came on the start of one of Islam's holiest holidays, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, after demonstrators marched outside of mosques in the morning.

Meanwhile, Iran's official reaction to the downfall of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime in primarily-Sunni Libya has been measured. The majority-Shiite nation has quietly hailed the victory of the Libyan people, while at the same time criticizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military campaign that aided the rebels' advance into Tripoli.

Iranian officials, as well as leaders of Iran-backed Hezbollah, appear to have taken a selective approach to the Arab uprisings, cheering the movements in Egypt and elsewhere as an "Islamic awakening," while rebuking unrest in Syria as a plot by Israel and the West.

Iran and Syria—together with Shiite political and militant group Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas—have for years banked on their anti-Israeli, anti-American posture as a guarantee for popular support in the Arab street, as well as a shield against domestic unrest. Iran saw itself as the leader of this group.

Over the past decade, Iran's regional power grew significantly because of its cash and alliances with political and militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Its allies supported Iran's growing influence while rival Sunni Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, viewed it as a threat.

Damascus is Tehran's oldest and most strategic Mideast ally. Syria was the only Arab nation to side with Iran during the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Syria also helps Iran sponsor and fund Hezbollah and Hamas, which the West deems terrorist groups. Western countries say Iran stocks Hezbollah's weapon cache through Syria, an arrangement that has allowed Tehran significant influence in the region and leverage in its negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.

For years in the region, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was held up as a revered religious figure, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah were hailed as folk heroes. They topped polls for the most popular regional leaders as recently as 2009.

But a new poll the Arab-American Institute conducted in six Arab countries and released in July showed Iran's popularity has fallen drastically. The poll, taken during the first three weeks of June, asked more than 4,000 Arabs questions that included whether Iran contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East. In Egypt, only 37% had a favorable view of Iran, compared with 89% in 2006. In Saudi Arabia, the number dropped to 6% from 85%, while in Jordan it fell to 23% from 75%.

"This whole arrangement between Syria and Iran is in deep trouble because of the Arab Spring. The geopolitics and the Arab street are changing, and it's leaving them exposed," said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.

Iran's reformist Islamic Participation Front party and the opposition Green Movement are warning that the days for dictatorships in the region, including Iran's, are numbered.

"Dictators must know that dictatorships are over and the end is coming for all dictators," said Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei during a Ramadan nightly prayer service in the holy city of Qom last week.

In Lebanon and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, anti-Syrian regime protests have erupted, to the dismay of their governments, which are allied with Iran. In Gaza, Hamas has forcibly dispersed the demonstrations. In Iran, government-owned media have blacked out all news of Syrian protests. But the events dominate Iranian opposition websites and blogs.

In Syria, protesters have burned Iranian and Hezbollah flags, along with pictures of Messrs. Khamenei and Nassrallah as they chanted "Death to the Dictator."

Iran's foreign ministry said last week that the country's ambassador to Damascus would return to Tehran early and be succeeded by a deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs.

Iranian diplomats have discussed whether it is time to approach the Syrian opposition, said an adviser to the foreign ministry.

He said the government and Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite special-military force, have ruled it out for now.

President Ahmadinejad has said the regional uprisings are legitimate only if they are anti-Western and anti-Israeli. In an interview last week with Hezbollah's news channel, Al Manar, he said about Syria, "Western powers are hoping to attack Syria as they did in Libya. Syrian people and the government must negotiate and reach a compromise about reforms."

Iranian opposition website Kaleme reported last week that Iranian diplomats in Damascus were evacuating their families and relocating from their homes in fear of retaliation in case Mr. Assad is toppled.

Hezbollah's Mr. Nassrallah has called on Syrians to "maintain their regime of resistance," saying overhauls are needed, but only Mr. Assad is equipped to carry them through.

Increasingly, ordinary Arabs and Iranians are asking, on blogs and in conversations and interviews, what kind of resistance group would turn a blind eye to the killing of innocent fellow Muslims.

"People are disenchanted with Iran and Hezbollah. All these years they convinced us that they stand up for the oppressed and now they are showing us their true faces," said Saleem Kabbani, a 21-year-old Syrian activist from Homs who recently fled to Lebanon.

Even at home, Iran's strategy is beginning to backfire, where even some people who support the regime are beginning to feel uneasy about the unequivocal support for Mr. Assad, and are calling for the government to change course.

A commentary posted last week on the conservative Khabaronline website, belonging to parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, called for Iran to deal with regional upheavals in a diplomatic, rather than ideological, way that would enhance its interests.

"Our government's policy is misguided. We must stand with the Arab people," said Saeed, a public-school principal who didn't give his last name.


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