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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Iran calls Assad's overthrow a red line

A senior aide to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni has warned that the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad would be a red line for Iran.
"If the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is toppled, the line of resistance in the face of Israel will be broken," Ali Akbar Velayati, who is seen as a potential contender in Iran's June presidential election, said in an interview broadcast on Sunday.
"We believe that there should be reforms emanating from the will of the Syrian people, but without resorting to violence and obtaining assistance from the (United States of) America," he told Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen satellite television.
Asked if Iran sees Assad as a red line, Velayati said: "Yes, it is so. But this does not mean that we ignore the Syrian people's right in choose its own rulers."
Iran fears Assad's fall
But Tehran supports Assad largely for strategic rather than sectarian (leave alone ethnic) reasons. Syria has been Iran’s only loyal Arab ally, even during the devastating Iran-Iraq War imposed on Iran by Iraq. All other Arab regimes, principally the Gulf monarchs newly flush with petrodollars, not only supported Iraq but largely financed Saddam’s war machine. Equally important, if not more so, is the fact that since the 1980s Syria has been the principal conduit for Iranian military and financial assistance to the Lebanese Hezbollah and, until recently, to Hamas.
The relationship’s economic dimension also is important. Syria has become a crucial economic lifeline for Iran. As one analyst puts it, "As both countries become increasingly isolated from the international community their economic ties have become exceedingly more important.” These ties have included a $10 billion agreement signed just before the Syrian uprising began for the construction of a gas pipeline running though Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and reaching Europe via the Mediterranean.
Additionally, Assad’s Syria is perceived by Iran as a part of the “resistance” front against Israel, one of Iran’s two primary regional antagonists — the other being Saudi Arabia. It is the authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan (and until recently in Egypt under Mubarak), that have fanned the fires of sectarian conflict by dubbing Iran’s support to Syria’s Alawite regime as sectarian and part of an Iranian effort to create a Shia crescent to dominate the Middle East. This allegation makes little sense when applied to Iran’s policy toward Syria since the Alawites are considered heretics or even non-Muslims by most Muslims, Sunni and Shia alike. But the allegation resonates with some because of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah’s dependence upon Iran for military and financial support.
But Iran’s policy both toward Iraq and Hezbollah is driven only partly by sectarian-religious considerations. Tehran considers it essential to have a friendly regime in Baghdad because it cannot afford a re-run of its war with Iraq, which inflicted colossal damage on both countries but particularly on Iran. Saddam’s fall empowered Iraq’s Shia majority, which bolsters Iran’s sense of security vis-à-vis its neighbor. All major Shia parties in Iraq are led by people beholden to Iran, which gave them refuge and training during Saddam’s rule. The Lebanese Hezbollah has had close religious and ideological ties with Iran’s ruling clerical elements, but the relationship also has a strategic logic. Hezbollah is the only Arab force capable of standing up to Israel and giving it a bloody nose, as it did during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military capabilities provide Iran a backdoor option against Israel in case of an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Conversely, Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni-dominated opposition against the Assad regime not so much for sectarian reasons but because of the latter’s connection with Iran. For the Saudis and their monarchical allies in the Persian Gulf, keeping Iran bogged down in the Syrian quagmire diverts Tehran’s attention and capabilities from the Gulf theatre. This benefits Gulf kingdoms apprehensive of the fallout from the Arab Spring on their own legitimacy and longevity. The uprising in Bahrain, brutally crushed by the al-Khalifa regime with military support from Saudi Arabia, has made the absolute rulers of the Gulf very nervous about their own future. Thus, they paint the democracy movement in Bahrain as an Iranian conspiracy in order to gain support from Arab publics and Western powers.
The Saudi and Qatari governments have provided financial support to the Syrian opposition, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries reportedly have sent weapons systems to the Free Syrian Army and other armed elements fighting the Assad regime. Such external support has helped turn the conflict into a full-fledged civil war.
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Iran may threaten regarding Syria, but they are far from the only outside player in Syria. In the meantime, the world continues to believe that the 'Israeli-Palestinian' conflict is the impediment to peace in the region.

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