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Syria and Iran's Power Calculus

Interviewee: Karim Sadjadpour, associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 30, 2011

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Iran's close ties to Syria mean that if the government of President Bashar al-Assad were to fall after months of opposition and a brutal crackdown, "it would be a tremendous blow to the Iranian regime," says Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour. Syria is the country that allows Iran to supply its "crown jewel" in the Middle East, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, Sadjadpour explains. He also says despite comments by Iran's foreign minister suggesting that Syria should consider the views of the protest movement, Iran is doing everything in its power to ensure the survival of the Assad regime and is likely counseling the Syrian government that to give in to protestors "doesn't alleviate the pressure, but it projects weakness and might invite even more pressure."

How is Iran reacting to the upheavals in the Arab world?

They would like to influence as much as possible the power vacuums taking place in various Arab countries. Iran has perhaps greater inroads with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt given their mutual ties to Hamas, but it's unlikely that proud, predominantly Sunni Arab Egypt will take its cues from Shiite Iran. Iran welcomed the Arab awakening until it arrived in Syria. The Assad family in Damascus has really been Iran's only regional ally since the 1979 revolution. If the Assad regime fell, it would be a tremendous blow to the Iranian regime. And, in particular, the crown jewel of the Iranian revolution is Hezbollah in Lebanon. If the Assad regime were to be succeeded by a regime in Damascus that was no longer interested in continuing Syria's patronage of Hezbollah, or was not interested in maintaining the Syrian-Iran alliance, it would be very difficult logistically for Iran to continue its patronage of Hezbollah.

What do you think about the comments over the weekend from the Iranian foreign minister, who said that Syria should listen (Independent) to the protests of its people?

The violence and brutality in Syria has escalated to such a level that Iran has become forced to acknowledge it publicly. But I am sure that in private the Iranians have offered Assad their unequivocal support and they've advised him not to compromise and not to reform. The long-held strategy and philosophy of the hardliners in Iran is that you never compromise under pressure, because compromise under pressure doesn't ameliorate the pressure but [instead] projects weakness and might invite even more pressure.

Are there signs that Iran is giving tangible support to the Assad regime through its intelligence and other security agencies?

Given how crucial the Syrian-Iranian relationship is to Iran, I am sure that Tehran is offering everything it possibly can to buoy Assad, whether it's intelligence support, or technological aid to help jam the Internet, whether it is material support in the form of weaponry.

Crisis Guide: Iran

Has anything come of Iran's efforts to reopen relations with Egypt?

Despite the fact that the chief impediment to better relations, from Iran's vantage point, was President Hosni Mubarak and his alliance with the United States, this is an issue that is going to take time. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sees it as his job to remain loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini's ideals and vision, and the breaking of ties with Egypt was something Khomeini initiated. If Egypt maintains its close rapport with the United States--including its strong military alliance--I think it could be some time before Egypt and Iran normalize relations. The other point of contention is the street in Tehran named after the assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Khalid Islambouli. Egypt has long asked them to change the name of that street and Iran has long refused.

What do you think will happen to the American hikers recently sentenced to eight years in prison?

I am sure that in private the Iranians have offered Assad their unequivocal support and they've advised him not to compromise and not to reform.

The term we should be using is no longer "hikers" but "hostages." Iran has made it very clear that they would like to barter these young men for Iranians who are in U.S. prisons for various reasons, whether it be arms trading or other crimes. What I find interesting is that when you look at Iran's neighbors Dubai and Turkey, they've managed to build thriving economies by trading in goods and services. Yet Iran, even thirty-two years after the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage-taking, remains in the business of trading in human beings.

It is somewhat reminiscent of the hostages that Iran took not only in 1979, but also through the hostage-taking in Lebanon in 1980s Lebanon via Hezbollah. It is very difficult when you are a government like the United States to deal with hostage-takers, because the concern is that if you release Iranian prisoners in exchange for Americans, you are simply rewarding bad behavior and encouraging hostage-taking in the future.

There are continuing reports that people close to Khamenei are seeking to get rid of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. How big a split is there in the leadership in Iran?

The folks around Ayatollah Khamenei have really been aggravated by Ahmadinejad's delusions of grandeur. Over the last few months, they have really put him in his place. I think Khamenei will want to keep Ahmadinejad in office until his term ends in 2013 because Khamenei's modus operandi is to wield power without accountability; that requires a president who has accountability without power. So a weakened lame-duck Ahmadinejad is the best-case scenario for Khamenei, because when people chafe under the lack of political and social freedoms, Khamenei can continue to try to project his image of a magnanimous leader above the fray while allowing Ahmadinejad to suffer the popular criticism.

When you look at Iran's neighbors and their fairly thriving economies, what is truly remarkable is that thirty-two years after the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage-taking, Iran remains in the business of trading in human beings.

Over the weekend, news came that Mehdi Karroubi (CNN) one of the leaders of the 2009 opposition to Ahmadinejad, has not been seen by his wife for six weeks and is reportedly under psychiatric pressure to "confess" to crimes.

Both Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi have been essentially in solitary confinement for the better part of the last year. The regime was clever not to send them to Evin prison, which could have provoked an international or domestic outcry. Instead their homes are their prisons. They are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world. But looking at the Iranian opposition and comparing it to the opposition movement in the rest of the Middle East, there is one key distinction: Whereas the Syrian opposition, the Egyptian opposition, the Libyan opposition all were united in wanting to bring down their respective regimes, the Iranian opposition still remains somewhat divided as to what their endgame is. People like Mousavi and Karroubi, who were participants in the 1979 revolution and up until 2009 were insiders in the Islamic Republic, still claim they are seeking reform of the revolution. But the younger generation would like to see a much more dramatic change. That's why you haven't seen the protests in Iran snowball like they have elsewhere in the Middle East.

Do you get the impression that students would like a different kind of regime?

Very few among the younger generation in Iran, who have access to the Internet and satellite television and have traveled to nearby countries like Turkey and Dubai, think that having a supreme leader who purports to be the prophet's representative on earth is an attractive form of government in the twenty-first century. I certainly think the younger generation of Iranians would like to see much more change. And I think that some of the older generation of Iranians, some of whom participated in the 1979 revolution, don't romanticize the prospects of revolution or some kind of dramatic overhaul, because they experienced it in 1979. My friend Rami Khouri, a well regarded Arab intellectual, wrote recently that it is condescending to refer to the event in the Arab world as the "Arab Spring," and it should be referred to as the "Arab Revolution." [But] Iran is precisely the opposite. The term "spring" is a lot more attractive to people in Iran than the term "revolution," because in the collective memory of most Iranians, it does not connote something positive.  It suggests intolerance, and chaos, and destruction, whereas the term "spring" has positive connotations.

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