Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria

The Weapons, Technology, and Expertise Tehran Sends Damascus

(Courtesy Reuters)

The Iranian regime is one of the few remaining allies of the embattled Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. For years, the United States has tried to sever the ties between the two countries, but the current crisis has only pushed them closer together.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has made it clear that Tehran sees the uprising in Syria as a U.S. ploy: "In Syria, the hand of America and Israel is evident," he said on June 30. Meanwhile, he affirmed Iran's support for Assad, noting, "Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it."

Despite disagreements on other matters, the rest of the Iranian regime seems to concur with Khamenei about Syria. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have characterized the Syrian uprising as a foreign conspiracy. And the parliament, which in recent years has competed for power with the guards, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader, is also in lockstep. On August 8, after a trip to Cairo, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament's Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, reiterated Khamenei's stand. "Having lost Egypt," he said, "the U.S. has targeted Syria."

For Iran, Assad's Syria is the front line of defense against the United States and Israel. Without his guaranteed loyalty, the second line of defense -- Hezbollah and Hamas -- would crumble. According to U.S. estimates, Hezbollah receives $100 million in supplies and weaponry per year from Tehran, which is transported through Syria. It would become all the more difficult to use Iran as a proxy against Israel if the Syrian borders were suddenly closed.

Moreover, the Iranian regime is particularly sympathetic because it views the Syrian uprising as similar in kind to the waves of protest that swept Iran in 2009 and 2010. Those protests, they have claimed, were a U.S.-backed attempt at regime change. The Syrian ones, the thinking goes, are a U.S. maneuver to destroy the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis -- the bedrock of Iran's power in the region. Speaking this spring, Ahmad Mousavi, Iran's former ambassador in Damascus, made this explicit: "Current events in Syria are designed by the foreign enemies and mark the second version of the sedition which took place in 2009 in Iran," he said. "The enemy is targeting the security and safety of Syria ... [The protestors] are foreign mercenaries, who get their message from the enemy and the Zionists."

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