Syrian Conflict: The Iranian Perspective

Monday, March 21, 2016

Mahmoud Omidsalar 

The presence of Iranian military advisors and volunteers in Syria has caused considerable concern for western politicians and pundits whose cries of foul rise from both sides of the ideological field. The loudest come from those who recently overthrew the governments of two UN member-states: Libya and Iraq.

My aim here is not to get into a squabble about whether Iran should be in Syria or not. Instead, I want to list the arguments of those Iranian analysts who write in Persian and whose reasoning is inaccessible to their western colleagues. Some of these that have been posted in Ayatollah Khamenei’s website may have official sanction.

Iranian officials have long been saying that their country’s involvement in the Syrian war is to defend Iran against ISIL, also known as ISIS and DAESH, which they consider to be a very dangerous enemy. They argue that since Iraq borders on Iran to the east and Syria to the west, and since large chunks of both Syria and Iraq are already controlled by ISIL, a corridor exposing Iran’s western borders to ISIL attacks exists. They fear that if Syria falls, Iraq too will fall and that will bring ISIL to Iran’s western borders. This is unacceptable to the Iranian public and policy makers who are quite concerned about reports of ISIL’s possession of chemical weapons, which it has used against Syrians and Iraqis. Thousands of living victims of Saddam’s chemical attacks are daily reminders of the seriousness of the threat

Defending the country against ISIL is a life and death issue for Iranians because of this terrorist group’s exceptional brutality. Unlike moderate Sunnis who are tolerant of other faiths, ISIL extremists consider Shiites as heretics who must be killed. So far, whenever ISIL has defeated an enemy, it has massacred men and enslaved women and children. Yezidi, Christian, Kurdish, and Shiite communities have already suffered this fate . Moreover, Iranians are understandably concerned that if ISIL is allowed to reach their country’s western borders, Iran’s major cities will be targeted by truck-bombs and other terrorist attacks. The almost daily occurrence of such attacks in all of Iran’s neighbors is a rude reminder of what could happen if Syria and Iraq are overrun. Defeating ISIL, therefore, is a vital national security concern for Iran, which feels vulnerable to its assault.

Unlike the United States that is protected on both sides by vast oceans and has friendly neighbors on its southern and northern borders, Iran is exposed on all sides. Not long ago it fought a devastating war with the most powerful Arab state that was supported by virtually all of Iran’s neighbors. Therefore, in order to ensure its own security, Iran has embarked on a project of pushing its lines of defense away from its borders. In other words, it has been systematically increasing its strategic depth. Iran’s involvement in the Syrian fight against ISIL should be partly understood in these terms. Responding to the Syrian government’s official request for military help, the Islamic Republic is actually defending its own vital security interests. The other part of the picture has to do with the history of the relationship between Iran and Syria.

Syria was the only Arab state that helped Iran throughout its war with Saddam who in order to secure Arab support, tried to cast his war with Iran as the war between Iran and the entire Arab World. Syria refused to go along with this farce, and by actively taking Iran’s side, redefined the conflict as Saddam’s war rather than the war between Arabs and Persians. Furthermore, throughout the war, when Iran was suffering under very strict sanctions that were imposed on it by the U.S., Europe, Russia, China, and countries as far away as Brazil and Argentina, Syria stood by Iran. Syrians not only supplied Iranians with weapons and training, but also helped the country bypass the embargo and purchase military supplies that it desperately needed. At the time when Syria came to Iran’s aid, the boycott was so severe that Iran could not even purchase barbed wire; a fact that Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian officials have repeatedly mentioned. Iranians have not forgotten Syria’s friendship, and Realpolitik notwithstanding, intend to return the favor. 

There are two other important dimensions to Iran’s support of Syria. First, two holy Shiite sites, the mosques of Sayyidah Zaynab and Sayyidah Ruqayya (the Prophet’s granddaughter and great granddaughter respectively) are located in or near Damascus. Sunni extremists have threatened to destroy these shrines like so many other mosques and monuments that they have demolished. Taking the jihadists at their word, Iranians will do their best to prevent this outrage. Second, Iraq and Syria are Iran’s bridge to the Hezbollah and to the Palestinian resistance.  If this bridge is cut off, it would be more difficult for Iran to supply these important regional allies. 

Pundits and spin masters have declared that Iran’s hidden agenda in all of this is to recreate its ancient “Persian Empire”. That, of course, is malarkey. As the late Tony Judt put it so eloquently in another context, “for an empire to be born, a republic has first to die.” Because of Iran’s history, the word “Republic” in the name of The Islamic Republic of Iran has religious signification and Iranians will stay with it as a matter of piety. They will trade neither the “Islamic” nor the “Republic” parts of their country’s name for the ridiculous notion of establishing an Empire. That anachronistic and costly project is best left to America and those who dream of a Caliphate.

*Mahmoud Omidsalar obtained his Ph.D. in Persian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984, and joined the Encyclopaedia Iranica as a consulting editor in 1990. He was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Center for the Great Islamic Encyclopedia (Tehran). In 2006. Together with the late Iraj Afshar, he edited the series Folia Medica Iranica and Persian Manuscripts in Facsimile. His most recent English books are: Poetics and Politics of Iran’s National Epic, the Shāhnāmeh (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and Iran’s Epic and America’s Empire: A Handbook for a Generation in Limbo (Santa Monica: Afshar Publishing, 2012).

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*Photo Credit: Russia Insider

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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