A clergymen casts his vote in the city of Qom, March 2, 2012
© AFP
A clergymen casts his vote in the city of Qom, March 2, 2012
Last updated: May 19, 2013
Paula Koch: Iran and Syria after the election

"New regulations that tighten the cleric’s oversight abilities also threaten to destabilize domestic politics"

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Are Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections more than an opportunity to determine President Ahmadinejad’s successor? Could the elections have the potential to affect the Iranian-Syrian alliance and Iran’s staunch support of the Assad regime?

As the two-year old conflict in Syria balances on an uneasy stalemate between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition forces battling to bring down his reign, a shift in support for either side could tip the balance of power.

The Iran-Syria alliance has existed in varying degrees of cooperation since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The two states are, to some extent, unlikely allies. However, the secular Syrian Ba’athist regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran have come to depend on one another over the past decades. Without the alliance, both Iran and Syria would be further isolated and more exposed to domestic and international calls for change. As allies, the two regimes are better able to pursue their respective goals.

Syrian objectives include reclaiming the Golan Heights from Israel and maintaining some level of influence in Lebanon. Iran, on the other hand, seeks to become a regional power. Together, the allies have worked to ensure that Iraqi predominance has remained at bay and that Israel is continually battling Syria and Iran supported anti-Israel entities such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 

For Iran, Syria has provided a much needed Arab ally in the region. Perhaps more importantly, Syria has given Iran access to Lebanon and therefore access to Hizbollah and a battleground with Israel.

While some speculate that the ouster of the Assad regime would deal a significant blow to Iran and its objectives in the region, others argue that Iran will simply adapt to the new circumstances as it has always done when the political landscape has changed in the Middle East.

The removal of Assad and the ensuing transitional period will be turbulent. The instability presents Iran with a chance to assert its influence in an emerging post-Assad regime and send a message to its domestic constituents.

“Iran’s policy in Syria is twofold: support (Assad), but in the event of his departure, make sure that the pain is so hard that Iranians in Iran will see for themselves what ‘change’ involves,” said Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.

A domestic political shift in Iran could impact the Islamic Republic’s calculus when it comes to its unequivocal support for Assad. The power relations between the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are notably unclear. Khamenei has considerable oversight over policy but, on the other hand, Ahmadinejad is setting a precedent for a president to be involved in domestic and foreign policy matters. 

The upcoming presidential elections are an opportunity for the Supreme Leader to replace the outspoken Ahmadinejad with a candidate that is less threatening to his leadership. Realistically, however, will the presidential transition allow for change in Iran’s foreign policy?

“No,” argues Professor Ansari, “because policy is made by the Supreme Leader and the ‘election’ is not going to be much more than a competition between his nominees… This is not a policy being driven by the government.”

However, new regulations that tighten the cleric’s oversight abilities also threaten to destabilize domestic politics. The clerics are keen to evade popular discontent similar to that which arose out of the announcement that Ahmedinejad won the last presidential elections by a wide margin. There is fear that the Arab uprisings would spread to Iran if the elections prove to be significantly influenced by the country’s leadership.

In an effort to keep domestic dissent at bay, Iranian policy towards Syria could turn to a less pro-Assad stance should unrest resulting from the elections emerge. Though even this is optimistic.

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