Interview with me, mirrored from The United States Institute of Peace Iran Primer.
Q. What impact will the call by the United States and major European powers for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down–followed by heightened U.S. and EU sanctions–have on Syria-Iran relations?
Cole: They will push Syria even more into the arms of Iran. Syria is being gradually cut off from Western finances and relationships. So if the regime is going to survive, it will want to look east to Iran and perhaps China. Syria seems to also be improving its relationship with Iraq.
Q. Why has Iraq opted to align with Syria and Iran in backing Assad?
Cole: It is not entirely clear. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki does not state motivations. But it appears that two things are going on. There is a domestic reason; Maliki is worried about Bashar al Assad being overthrown. Assad belongs to the minority Shiite sect of Alawites. Many of Assad’s opponents are Sunnis- some of whom are Sunni fundamentalists. And some of those are the sort of people who were supporting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Maliki does not want them to come to power in Damascus and become his neighbors.
Another consideration that has been suggested is that Maliki owes his position as prime minister in this round [of elections held in 2010] to the support of Iran for coalition building of the Iraq Shiites. So he may be paying back a debt.
Q. Is this a new de facto alliance?
Cole: There seems to be a growing Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis for certain purposes. Iraq is a very complex place and it still is, in odd ways, an American ally. Though in this particular instance, Baghdad is siding with Iran and Syria against the stated U.S. position. The alliance appears to be over sectarianism and regional politics. There is nothing that Syria can do for Iraq, economically. Syria is potentially a trading partner but there is no economic carrot that Syria can offer Iraq. It is actually the other way around. According to one report-that Maliki has denied-the Iranians had pressured the Iraqi government to donate $ 10 billion to Syria to help Damascus get through its current crisis. The alliance is very much about who you will like to have in the capital of your neighbor.
Q. What are the factors behind the support of Iran and Iraq for Syria?
Cole: Iran is isolated and has very few allies in the Middle East-Lebanon and Syria being the primary ones. So it has every reason to act as patron to Syria. Syria forms a bridge between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. So it is a way of protecting Iranian power and influence in the Levant. Iraq is not similarly isolated but it is in some ways being pushed into a Shiite set of alliances, both by the sectarian undertones to the uprising in Syria and by events in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority demanded the Sunni monarchy become a constitutional monarchy. [But the Shiites] were crushed with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who were essentially acting as Sunni powers in the Gulf. This crushing of Bahrain’s democracy movement by Sunni powers provoked large demonstrations in Iraq and angered a lot of Iraqi Shiites. Of course, Maliki is both the prime minister of Iraq and the main political leader of the Iraqi Shiites. So he is being pushed toward a kind of sectarian politics and a closer alliance with Iran and Damascus by the sectarian character of the Arab Spring in the Gulf region.
Q. How have Iran and Iraq reacted to unrest in Syria?
Cole: The Iranians have jumped up and down and been very vocal about the repression in Bahrain [and] they have [even] supported the Libyan uprising. In fact, they have supported all of the uprisings. They claimed that the uprisings are Islamic in character and inspired by Iran’s revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini. But the Iranians do not say anything about what is going on in Syria. It is just like a blank slate and a point of clear hypocrisy on their part.
Tehran does not admit that there are protestors in Syria. They do not say anything about the movement in Syria. They do not deplore the violence used against peaceful non-combatants in a way that they have in other countries. They just do not talk about it. The Persian press is silent– a big contrast to their vocal position on the other Arab Spring revolts. With regard to Iraq, Nouri al Maliki gave a speech [in late August] in which he warned that too much pressure on the Assad regime could get to a point where Israel would be able to take advantage of the situation. [link here] This is a remarkable statement on Maliki’s part. He has not typically talked much about Israel, although he did take a stand for Hezbollah in 2006 and was angry about the Gaza war in 2008-9.
The discourse Maliki used [on Israel] may have well been coming out of Tehran. And it seems to be a sign again that Maliki is being pushed [away] from the kind of American-sponsored states of the eastern Arab world and their discourse-[namely] Jordan and Egypt [which] have peace treaties with Israel. He is starting to sound much more like Iran or Lebanon, even Damascus, when it comes to Israel. It is a new and different discourse for[mainstream] Iraqi politics in the post-Saddam era.
Read Juan Cole’s chapter on Iran and Islam in “The Iran Primer”
Juan Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan and runs the Informed Comment weblog. He has authored many books on the Middle East. His latest is “Engaging the Muslim World” (2010).