Iraq Adopts Iran’s Backing of Assad

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).

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23 Responses

  1. you are definitely wrong about Iran being completely silent about the events in Syria. Iran has been nothing like that. I am from Iran and I see that many newspapers and new channels talk about it and Iran has even officially asked Assad to do reforms to quell his people.what we should not forget about the events in Syria is that it is of a totally different nature than the ones in Egypt, Tunisia or Lybia. Like Iran’s post-2009 presidential election uprisings, here we have intense external interference, and unlike other Arab dictators, Assad is hugely popular in his country.

    • If he was really popular he would have no problem with having democratic elections in his country.

    • Assad is CATEGORICALLY not popular with his country. People hate him, and have been terrified of speaking out. The people hated him especially after the events of Homs and Hama in 82.

  2. Great! Iraqi PM Maliki now supports, Assad and his Ba’ath henchmen and secret police and his army who are violently repressing and killing Syrian protestors. How ironic, after after so many Americans and Iraqis gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom, throwing over the equally barbarous Ba´ath regime of Saddam Hussein. Maybe Iraq needs its own ´Arab Spring’.

    • How ironic indeed. If Washington had in fact pursued Iraqi democracy rather than Iraqi submission, then the door might not have opened for al Qua’ida in Iraq to emerge or for Iranian influence to expand. That would have been an Arab Spring for Iraq. Colonization is no “Spring,” however. “Spring” means independence plus power to the people (rise of civil society). That would likely have produced a strongly anti-rightwing Israeli expansionists, mildly pro-Iranian neutral, relatively pacific state (sound like Turkey under Erdogan??). Such was hardly the goal of Washington empire-builders.

      Iraq may yet get its Spring, once the U.S. military and, very importantly, the enormous force of U.S.-run mercenaries, depart (if ever).

      I wonder what the Mideast with Erdogan and the somewhat empowered Egyptian people might look like were the U.S. military to stop fanning the flames?

      • The Shia suffered decades of oppression from Saddam Hussein, millions of Iraqi Arab Shia were given refuge in Iran, including al-Maliki, far fewer were given refuge in other Arab states.

        The majority if Iraqi Arab’s are Shia, we’ve seen what Sunni Arab’s think of Shia Arabs in Bahrain.

        No matter what the US did or didn’t do after the 2003 invasion, it was inevitable that a democratically elected government in Iraq would be dominated by the Shia and be Iran friendly. And I doubt anything would have been different if the Elder Bush had toppled Saddam in ’91.

        • The Shia who suffered were the ones trying to import Iran’s theocracy into Iraq. This fact is often overlooked. Indeed, the Iraq-Iran, wrong though it was, was ultimately an attempt to prevent Shia theocracy.

          Otherwise, secular Shia comprised 70% of the Baath Party, and security forces.

          The Revolutionary Command Council, the highest governing body with actual power, beneath Saddam, consisted of 8 people: 3 Sunni Arabs, a Sunni Kurd, an Arab Christian, and 3 Arab Shia.

          All those so-called Oppositionists to Saddam were educated in the West on scholarships from the Baath government– Ayad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi included, both of whom were members of Baath Party. Even more so, they were Saddams minions–Ayad Allawi was a car bomber.

          Don’t believe the hype.

    • Americans gave their lives for freedom in Iraq?

      If you’re looking for irony, count the number of US allies that became our enemies. Start with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

  3. I suspect that al Maliki has as much distaste for Israel as does Ahmadinijad but is oblidged to speak little, or not at all, of it while he is is still dependent on the good will of the American government.

  4. Two questions:
    1). You don’t identify Turkey as a part of the “defacto alliance” (3rd question). Is there a reason you leave Turkey out?

    2). In response to the same question, you state “There is nothing that Syria can do for Iraq, economically.” Aren’t there still a considerable number of Iraqi refugees throughout Syria, and if they were all quickly deported back to Iraq, would that not be a severe strain on Iraq at this point? If so, perhaps that is something that Syria has to offer Iraq.

  5. The quote by the Iranian:

    and unlike other Arab dictators, Assad is hugely popular in his country.

    is quite funny. If that is the case, then so was Saddam a hugely popular dictator in Iraq, as his supporters fought tooth and nail against the post-invasion Iraq.

    The Shiites should just come out and say that they only support other Shias and anything they deem to be pro-Shia (even if it is in their imaginations like the uprisings in Lybia or Egypt) and that they do not give a damn about us Sunnis until and unless we seem to move closer to Shiaism.

    From my side, I am honest and say that I only care about Sunni interests as opposed to Shia ones as well. But at least I am honest about where my allegiances lie and do not try to portray things as other than what they are.

    • First of all, how do you know all Iranians are Shias?!! There are Christians and Jews and Zoroastrians and Sunnis in Iran as well!!! The reason you think all Iranians are Shia is because in other arab countries non-Sunnis (Just as you mentioned yourself) are not seen as human beings or have no rights. (Like in Saudi and Bahraini dictatorships). Then, It is absurd to say that Iranians only care for Shias because SHIA Iran has been the only and the only country who has stood for the rights of SUNNI Palestinians for more than three decades now!!! Moreover, Saddam was not popular with his people in Iraq; rather, he had mercenaries and of course people from his tribe who fought for him. This does not mean popular! Saddam was very much like how Qaddafi is now.

  6. The current Turkish government is much more identified with Sunni Islam than the predecessor secular governments. Their reaction to the Iraqi endorsement of Assad will be interesting.

  7. Professor Cole,

    I also differ with your claim that the official Iranian press has been silent on events in Syria. The state news media in Iran has adopted the line of the Asad regime, portraying the protesters as thugs and terrorists. It has not, to say the least, been sympathetic towards the protests, but this does not translate into silence.

    I disagree with your argument about Iran’s isolation in the region. In addition to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, you neglected to mention Hamas in Gaza, another close ally of Tehran. The Emir of Qatar was in Iran today, and he has hardly been on poor terms with the Islamic Republic, especially in recent years. Iran also continues to enjoy warm relations with Oman and, at the very least is confronted with a new Egyptian regime that is far less hostile towards it than Mubarak had been. The highly symbolic act of allowing Iranian navy liners to traverse the Suez earlier this year is evidence of this.

  8. Steve Crickmore

    It is not as if Maliki hasn’t done his share of vioent repression as well. But what, other than Bush-Cheney propganda, makes you believe your definition of “freedom” is anything like either that of a prototype Iraqi Sunni or Shia?

  9. Prof Cole, two statemetns of yours above.

    “if the (Syrian) regime is going to survive, it will want to look east to Iran and perhaps China.”

    “Iraq is a very complex place and it still is, in odd ways, an American ally.”

    I would suggest that if the Iraqi regime is going to stablize and survive, it will not stay long an American ally in any meaningful way.

  10. There is something that a “friendly” Syria can do for Iraq, provide an alternative route to the sea for Iraq’s oil & gas, link to

    If/when the Assad regime falls it will inevitably be replaced by a Sunni controlled government. Iraq will then be surrounded on three sides by Sunni governments; Saudi Arabia & Kuwait to the south, Jordan & Syria to the west and Turkey to the north.

    The new Syrian government will be pressured by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait & Turkey to renege on the pipeline deal, so that the SAKT alliance can maintain the chokehold it already has on Iraq’s oil/gas exports. This would probably be supported by the US.

    The enmity between the Sunni & Shia Arabs seems to have two dimensions. Firstly the differences in religious doctrine, dogma and jurisprudence, secondly the race based enmity between Arabs and Persians. Consequently Sunni Arabs regard Shia Arabs as not only as religious apostates, but also as racial traitors.

    @Lloyd – I’ll venture an answer to your question re Turkey.

    Turkey is being Obama-like, acting like they’re the only grown up in the room, avoiding extreme positions etc. Its foreign minister did go to Damascus where he is reported to have “read the riot act” to Assad, and since Assad failed to heed his advice, Turkey has said he must go.

    So why don’t they “read the riot act” to Iran? Turkey knows Iran would be extremely unlikely to listen and could retaliate by covertly interfering in Turkey’s own internal affairs, as it did in the days of the Ottoman Empire.

  11. @Juan: Now while we still have a _democrat_ in office would be an opportune time to re-invade Iraq and establish a more American friendly leadership, don’t you think? Under humanitarian pretenses, of course…

    @Abu Umar: it is a shame you think this way, that anyone thinks this way. It is odd that Sunnis should think themselves somehow oppressed by Shias. Please spend some time reading up on the history of anti-Shia genocide over the past, say, thousand years or so. Consider the condition of Shias in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, even today in Iraq where they are slaughtered by the dozens. Same in Pakistan. Sunnis consider it oppressive to even have a Shia leader in the same way “real” Americans consider it oppression to have a black man as President.

  12. cont’d: when you understand these things, when you understand the shocking oppression, blatant discrimination and mass killings that these communities have endured for hundreds of years, you might better understand why they seek to protect their interests and people first, when in fact they do.

    Question to you, ya Aba Umar: Do you accept that a person could be Arab _and_ Shia?

  13. “The Iranians have jumped up and down and been very vocal about the repression in Bahrain.”

    Why has USA not jumped up and down for the majority population of Bahrain while it is doing so for Libya, Syria and other countries?

    Are we selective when it comes to democratic movements?

    Or does it mean we consider ourselves leader of sunnis but we leave shias to be led by Iran ?

    • @Asad – its interesting isn’t it, the only US Administration that ever sided with the Shia was the one with a neo-con center – Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld and Cheney.

      The run-of-the-mill Democan & Republicrat Administrations always side with the Sunni.

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