Editor's Note: Flynt Leverett teaches international affairs at Penn State and is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. Hillary Mann Leverett teaches at American University and is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. They blog at The Race for Iran.
By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, The Race for Iran
For over 30 years, America’s Iran “experts” and Middle East pundits have characterized virtually every significant regional and internal Iranian development as a sure-to-be-fatal blow to the Islamic Republic. Their predictions have always been wrong. Now, unrest in Syria has brought out the usual suspects to forecast, once again, gloom and doom for Iran’s current political order.
Just within the last couple of days, the proposition that the Assad government’s implosion is going to deal a major blow to the Islamic Republic’s regional position and, perhaps, even its internal stability, has been advanced by Vali Nasr, see here, Karim Sadjadpour, see here, and Bilal Saab, see here. Michael O’Hanlon (who extolled the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq as a model campaign that would be studied in military staff colleges for years to come) and Elliot Abrams have even laid out a set of military options for the United States and its allies to consider applying in Syria to hasten such an outcome, see here and here. This proposition has also driven Western media outlets’ wholesale misreading of the Eid al-Fitr sermon yesterday by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, which was inaccurately characterized as “reflecting the Iranian leadership’s deep unease with the uprisings that have swept the region”; see here and here.
Given their track record of failed predictions and all that is at stake, for the United States and the people of the region, these individuals’ current policy recommendations ought to elicit very tough and skeptical scrutiny. Two points stand out as especially important.
First of all, it is far from clear that the Assad government is actually imploding. It is obvious that a portion of Syria’s population is aggrieved and disaffected, but it is not evident at all that this portion represents a majority. President Bashar al-Assad still retains the backing of key segments of Syrian society. Moreover, no one has identified a plausible scenario by which the “opposition”, however defined, can actually seize power.
We have been through this sort of situation before. In 2005, in the wake of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, most Western commentators confidently opined that President Assad was finished. Instead, he not only survived, but came through the episode with greater authority domestically and having reasserted Syria’s unavoidably central role in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy. In light of this history, assumptions that Assad cannot survive are, to say the least, premature. This is yet another example of something so utterly characteristic of the way in which Western analysts approach Middle Eastern issues, especially those touching on the Islamic Republic and its interests—analysis by wishful thinking.
Second, while most Iranian policymakers and foreign policy elites would almost certainly prefer to see Assad remain in office, it is wrong to assume that Tehran has no options or is even a net “loser” if the current Syrian government is replaced. A post-Assad government, if it is even minimally representative of its people, is going to pursue an independent foreign policy. It will not be enamored of the prospect of strategic cooperation with the United States, and may be less inclined than the Assad regime (under both Bashar and his father, the late Hafiz al-Assad) to keep Syria’s southern border with Israel “stable”. Tehran can work with that.
Moreover, a minimally representative post-Assad government would probably entail a significant role for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has had extensive interaction with Islamist supporters of participatory politics in Turkey and other places in the Muslim world. Syria’s Muslim Brothers take issue with the Assad government’s internal policies, not its foreign policies, especially toward Israel and the United States. Just as the ikhwan in post-Mubarak Egypt has made clear its interest in seeing closer Egyptian-Iranian ties, the Syrian Brothers are likely to take a similar approach in a post-Assad environment.
There are two scenarios for a post-Assad Syria which would be genuinely bad for Iranian interests. One would be the installation of an intensely salafi, Taliban-like regime with extensive Saudi support. But such a government would not be at all reflective of Syrian society, or even most of its Sunni community. For that reason alone, this scenario seems unlikely absent extraordinary levels of external support for that part of the Syrian opposition which—contrary to Westerners’ derisive dismissal of official Syrian claims—consists of violent salafi extremists, see here.
The other negative-for-Iran scenario would be the installation of U.S.-supported expatriates as Syria’s new government. This, too, would be grossly unrepresentative of Syria’s population. It also would almost certainly require a U.S.-led invasion of the country to effect—something that those opposition voices in Syria which have spoken to the subject have uniformly said they do not want. Moreover, the U.S. experience in Iraq raises doubts as to whether even an invasion in force, followed by prolonged, multi-year occupation, can ultimately succeed in installing a puppet regime in today’s Middle East. None of the Iraqi expatriates that the United States backed so handsomely—e.g., Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi—has been able to retain, by winning elections, the power initially handed to them by Paul Bremer and the U.S. military. There is no reason to think it would be easier for America and its European and regional partners to achieve this in Syria.
One should also question the facile assumption of many American Iran “experts” that Tehran’s regional influence would be fatally damaged by the Assad government’s replacement. Part of that assumption reflects a superficial assessment that Iran is desperately dependent on Syria to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon. Did those who make this assumption notice that one of the first significant policy decisions by post-Mubarak Egypt was to open the Suez Canal to Iranian military vessels? Moreover, did they notice that Hezbollah today effectively controls all of the main air and sea transit points into Lebanon?
It has become part of Western conventional wisdom that the Islamic Republic was all in favor of the Arab awakening until it got to Syria. While Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian officials have been quite explicit in explaining why, in their view, Syria is different from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Libya, this does not mean that they do not still believe the Arab awakening continues to be, on balance, an enormous boon to the Islamic Republic’s strategic position. Just yesterday, Khamenei described “the events taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and certain other countries” as “decisive and destiny making for the Muslim nations.”
Khamenei warned against letting “the imperialist and hegemonic powers and Zionism, including the U.S. tyrannical and despotic regime” use “the ongoing conditions in their own favor.” But, with an independent Egypt likely to develop closer ties to Iran, post-Saddam Iraq increasingly committed to strategic cooperation with Tehran, and Saudi Arabia pursuing an ever more overtly “counter-revolutionary” course, the region is not looking so bad from an Iranian vantage. More likely than not, President Assad is going to stay around for a while in Damascus; even if he were to go, Iran will be able to deal with the kind of government most likely to follow him.
The United States needs to give up quixotic illusions of “containing” Iran or making the Islamic Republic disappear. Washington needs, instead, to recognize the Islamic Republic’s importance in the regional balance and come to terms with it.