Are Syrian-Iranian Ties in Crisis?
By Nabil Al Mulhem
Albawaba.com – Beirut
Press reports have talked of souring relations between the two allies,Syria and Iran, after the death of the late president Hafez Assad. The Syrians and the Iranian official press have remained silent, while the Lebanese Hizbollah, which was the only party that stood up and denied the reports, describing them, in the words of the party’s politburo head, Mohammad Ra’ada, as “fishing in dirty waters.”
Sources in Beirut, close to Damascus and Tehran, believe that the friction started even before the death of Assad, and attributed it to the fact that the government of former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsinjani was against Arab participation in the Madrid peace conference in 1991. Iran was firm on its position during Rafsinjani’s reign, they said. Instead of supporting Syria’s vision of peace with Israel, Iran preferred to give all possible support for Hizbollah, which was fighting against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.
But according to the sources, the crisis was under control. However, they said that when the current president Mohammad Khatami rose to power in Iran, he adopted a more flexible policy with a tendency to more openness with Iran’s neighbors and the US. His intention was to wipe out Iran’s image as a terrorism supporting country.
Nevertheless, and in light of the deadlock in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks, Syria viewed Khatami’s policies as unfavorable, the sources said, adding that the differences remained as ones between two close allies who never intended to escalate the dispute.
The observers believed that Iran was trying to approach Bashar Assad, even before he succeeded his father as president, but did not receive positive signals from the heir apparent, who has not so far visited Tehran despite frequent reports of such a visit, mostly originated by the Iranian side. Damascus, meanwhile, did not comment on the reports, nor has a Syrian top official been in Iran since Bashar became president.
President Khatami took part in the funeral of Assad the father, and was patron at a parade by Hizbollah which analysts saw as a message of support and alliance on the part of Tehran.
Some analysts have said that Syria was embarrassed by certain military operations carried out by Hizbollah against Israel. The country which supported Hizbollah during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, felt that the Islamist militias would drag it into a crisis at a time when Damascus was not ready to reveal all its cards under the new leadership.
They said that Syria wanted to upgrade its relation with Iran, but at the same time, it was against intensifying the crisis and was willing to improve the ties with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The new leader was also interested in bettering its position as regards the European-US axis, by both changing the impression of Syria as a hardline country, and launching liberal economic plans.
According to the observers, Syria wants to keep the door with Iran half-open in order to avoid the crisis. As for Hizbollah, they said that the party wants to “remain at a certain distance from Tehran where it can resort to Damascus whenever it is necessary,” and the other way round, taking into consideration two factors. The first factor is that Iranian political figures have become strong enough to compete with ayatollahs for power, and the second is Syria’s orientation towards liberalism. The analysts said that the formula with which Hizbollah is dealing with Lebanon might also be successful if applied to the movement’s relation with Damascus.
According to the analysts, even if the Syrian-Iranian alliance collapses, no party will be fatally harmed. Meanwhile, Syria’s relations with Ankara are more vital due to the water issue. “Water taps are more effective than ideologies and political convictions,” they said.