BEIRUT, Lebanon – The European Union imposed new sanctions on Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, clandestine arm of the Revolutionary Guards, for helping Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s strategic ally, crush a 5-month-old insurrection.
But it seems there are some in Tehran who are urging the Iranian leadership to step back from using its military muscle to keep Assad in power and take a more nuanced approach.
They argue that as the remorseless rise in Syrian death toll remorselessly rises — the United Nations says it exceeds 2,200 — this will alienate Arab states that Tehran seeks to win over as part of its drive to expand its influence in the Middle East.
“While officially Iran is committed to the survival of the Syrian regime, the perceived gravity of the situation has led an increasing number of former Iranian diplomats and academics to voice concern over the Islamic Republic’s failure to hedge its bets in Syria,” observed longtime Middle East analyst Mahan Abedin.
“The fear — expressed in its most extreme form — is that the downfall of President Assad may lead to the collapse of the Iranian-Syrian strategic alliance,” he wrote in Asia Times Online.
“While these fears are exaggerated, nonetheless there is a widespread feeling in the country that the lack of nuance in Iran’s position — and specifically the absence of any contact with Syrian opposition groups — is not configured to protect Iran’s interests in what is by all accounts a highly significant political and strategic moment in the region.”
On Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Al Manar, the Lebanese television channel run by Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and Syria, that it was time a for a dialogue between Assad and his opponents about political reforms.
That marked a significant shift in Tehran’s position amid the international outcry over the brutal Iranian-assisted security crackdown Assad has waged since March 15.
The protesters are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims seeking the downfall of a regime, which is dominated by minority Alawites and allied with Shiite Iran.
Whether Ahmadinejad’s statement stemmed from the urging of the prominent Iranian figures identified by Abedin isn’t clear.
But Ahmadinejad’s uncharacteristically conciliatory tone may have been intended to placate Hezbollah, which, although it is Shiite, has found it increasingly difficult to support the slaughter of Sunni Arabs by one of its mentors in the face of swelling Arab anger over the bloodletting of pro-democracy activists.
Hezbollah heads the Beirut government and thus effectively puts Lebanon squarely in the Iranian camp. The party is increasingly uneasy about anything that threatens its newfound power — like regime change in Syria that would cut it off from Iran.
“The people and government of Syria must come together to reach an understanding,” Ahmadinejad told Al-Manar.
The EU sanctions announced Wednesday allege the Iranians “provided technical assistance, equipment and support to the Syrian security services to repress civilian protest movements.”
Iran has denied this is, as does Hezbollah, which has also been accused of supporting the Syrian regime that provides it with weapons.
The United States and Europe support the wave of pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world that erupted in January.
These are dramatically changing the region’s political landscape as Iran seems determined to establish itself as the paramount power in the Middle East. It’s being challenged by old rival Saudi Arabia and by Turkey.
As the Iranians see it, securing a peaceful transition in Syria would enhance their stature.
“Talking to Iranian officials it appears that there is deep unease about the methods employed by the Syrian security forces,” Abedin observed.
He said that a Web site, Iranian Diplomacy, run by Iranians largely aligned with reformist factions, is the focal point of the questioning of official policy regarding Syria.
“Although firmly anchored in the official Iranian worldview, Iranian Diplomacy nonetheless offers serious and at times scathing criticism of official policy,” Abedin noted.
“It is fair to say that a growing number of Iranian officials are concerned that Iran’s unequivocal support for Assad and the ruling clique in Damascus is tarnishing the Islamic Republic’s image in the Arab world.
“It appears that there is a growing recognition in ruling circles in Tehran that this posture is unsustainable, particularly if internal and external pressure continues to mount against Assad.”