New strains on the Iranian-Syrian axis


Masked Iranian special forces march during the Army Day parade in Tehran on April 17, 2012. Iran will respond with force to any threats to its territorial integrity, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech at the parade, adding that it would prefer to cooperate with its Arab neighbors to maintain security in the Gulf.


Atta Kenare

LOS ANGELES — At the zenith of its formidable alliance in the Middle East, the leverage of the Iranian-Syrian relationship has had a significant impact on both the sharpening Middle East politics and thwarting regional goals.

Today the relationship has entered a new phase. These two odd political bedfellows — one socialist-secular and the other theocratic — are authoritarian, autocratic, oligarchic and have suppressed the emergence of civilian ruled-society through the deployment of brutal internal security forces, mass imprisonment, arbitrary detention, nepotism, stifling freedom of speech and assembly. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria successfully influenced the balance of power in the Middle East through the establishment of Hezbollah and the support of other proxy groups like Hamas. Throughout the last three decades, their relationship has had its ups and downs. It began with the honeymoon period. Then tensions rose over who would have more influence in Lebanon. Despite attempts by others to pull them apart, their strategic and political interests kept their alliance strong in the long run.

In an era when every nation is forced to become part of a globalized world intricately connected by advanced modern technology, Syria and Iran encountered three new forces: internal tension and crisis, regionalism, and the emergence of regional and international bodies. It is no longer possible for these regimes to commit despicable crimes against humanity behind closed doors. Images of the 13-year-old boy, Hamza Khatib, who was tortured for 13 days then killed by Assad’s security forces, captured the hearts of people around the world, and revealed the atrocious lengths to which the Syrian regime is willing to go to retain power.

Stories like that of Seakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was condemned to stoning following allegations of adultery, galvanized groups globally to pressure the Iranian regime to stop using uncivilized, 7th century tactics to intimidate its population. Surprisingly, international pressure forced the regime to suspend its verdict.

The overwhelming majority of youth in Syria and Iran no longer are prepared to accept humiliation and subjugation. Everyone has seen popular revolts erupt throughout the region, revealing the difficult sacrifices that people are willing to make for change. The Arab Spring revealed ordinary people choosing between two options: Continue to accept humiliation by submitting to a brutal and corrupt regime or risk their lives and demand change. Many made the critical decision to demand rights and basic human decency. They fight because they feel that they don’t have anything left to lose.

Besides the internal pressure that Iran and Syria are facing, there is also influence coming from regional organs such as the Arab League, which demonstrated its effectiveness in changing the regime in Libya. They have imposed sanctions on Syria, suspended its membership, and increased its isolation. They also have expressed concerns about continued Iranian nuclear enrichment. The European Union has pushed through two-track strategies to put pressure on Iranian leaders and bring them to the negotiating table through both diplomacy and sanctions. The most recent of these pressures was the “unprecedented” action to adopt an oil embargo against Iran. The third source of pressure came from the international community and UN Security Council that passed a resolution imposing sanctions and banning authorities that committed crimes from travel and freezing assets on Iran and Syria.

The Iranian and Syrian regimes have encountered a new era of globalization and interconnectedness Their previous policies and strategies no longer guarantee the survival of their relationship or the way they govern their people. Regional and international actors are increasingly isolating them. They are being publicly challenged by their own citizenry, which has lost the trust and faith in their leaders.

These regimes of Syria and Iran have lost their legitimacy and credibility. They have to adjust to the new world, redefine their goals and ambitions, and reconfigure their governmental systems to ones that respond to the needs of their people. Otherwise the unprecedented levels of pressure from internal, regional, and international forces will eventually relegate these regimes to the dustbins of history.

Majid Rafizadeh is ambassador for the National Iranian American Council. He is also an Iranian-Syrian Scholar and regular contributor to Harvard International Review.