Iran’s foreign minister put to rest on Sunday any suggestion that his government might be reconsidering its financial and military support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Standing next to his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem at a news conference in Tehran, Iran’s Ali Akbar Salehi reiterated strongly to reporters that the Islamic republic was wholeheartedly behind the Syrian president as he attempts to suppress a two-year old uprising in his country.
“Assad is Syria’s legal president until the next elections. Individuals have the freedom to run as candidates,” said Salehi. “Until that time, Assad is Syria’s president.”
Later in the press conference, the Iranian top diplomat went further, saying that as Syria’s leader, Assad would have every right to stand for reelection after his second term expires in 2014. The message that is being sent is clear: Tehran has no interest in seeing the Assad regime collapse.
For analysts who have suggested that the Iranians were in the process of cutting their losses and distancing themselves from the beleaguered Syrian government, Salehi’s remarks are a hard pill to swallow. Some of that hope was generated early on in the conflict when Salehi shocked the world by calling on his Syrian ally to recognize the legitimate political demands of the Syrian people. Assad’s decision to allow for multiparty competition in last year’s parliamentary election seemed to mollify that call, since the Iranians have been supporting the Syrian government with strong words and actions ever since.
There is little debate as to why Iran has thrown so much money, weapons and manpower at reinforcing the Syrian army since the civil war started. Under the Assad family, Syria has been an integral part of Iran’s strategic vision for the Middle East and an important piece of real estate that allows Tehran to leverage its influence into the heart of the Arab world. For the last thirty years, a friendly Syria has given Iran an open and reliable pipeline to Lebanon where its chief proxy force Hezbollah continues to hold a dominant edge in that country’s politics.
A Syria under Assad, in other words, has been an extremely valuable asset for the Islamic republic at a time when virtually every Arab government looks upon Tehran as a bunch of troublemakers eager to topple regimes or, when that proves too difficult, make the lives of those regimes as miserable as possible.
Viewed through Tehran’s lens, which sees itself surrounded by countries that are distrustful of its intentions, it is easy to understand why Iran would try to hold on to its alliance with Syria for as long as it can. Until Tehran finds a better way to safeguard and preserve its investment in Syria, it has little reason to throw Assad overboard.