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Did the Syrian Spring spoil the Supreme Leader’s night? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The troops loyal to Gaddafi are trying to protect their positions in the western regions and villages amidst an acute shortage of equipment and supplies, but what is even more concerning for Tripoli is the low morale of the troops, and the heavy losses being incurred by the regime’s forces at the hands of the rebels. Currently, the regime is counting on disputes within the rebel camp, and the rise of tribal and extremist forces competing over power in the event of the capital Tripoli falling.

At a time when Gaddafi is facing international isolation, there is one country that maintains ties with the Colonel, and who has remained silent with regards to the developments in Libya, namely Iran. The pillars of the Tehran regime are arguing that what is happening in the region – with the exception of Syria – is the inevitable result of an Islamic awakening sparked by the Iranian revolution, however they have remained reticent to some degree with regards to the situation in Libya, and there are a number of reasons for this.

Since the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, ties have been established between the [Libyan] Colonel with a thirst for revolutions and the mullahs in Tehran, for Libya at one stage was one of Iran’s strongest supporters and backers. There were Iranian reservations – of course – about the heresies of Colonel Gaddafi, and his eccentric views, and prior to this he was the number one suspect in the disappearance of the Shiite religious cleric Musa al-Sadr before the revolution. However, the mullah’s regime found the Colonel to be a reliable ally particularly when it came to masterminding coups and terrorist operations. This strange relationship has achieved results, with Colonel Gaddafi providing the Iranians with advanced Russian-made arms and missiles during the Iraq – Iran war, and he helped the Tehran regime get rid of opposition figures and logistical networks through his close relationships with armed groups and organizations across the world. However, this relationship is not the reason behind Iran’s silence regarding the situation in Libya, for however beneficial such a relationship with Colonel Gaddafi was, relations with him were always turbulent. The real reason for this silence is that the survival of the Gaddafi regime, and his steadfastness against the NATO campaign, represents two essential factors that have prevented NATO from a quick victory, and serve as a shield against international intervention in Syria, or Iran itself. Therefore it is not surprising for Iran to have become one of the harshest critics against military intervention in Libya, with the Iranians saying publicly that the situation in Libya should be resolved by the Libyan people themselves, rather than the West.

Currently, the pillars of the Iranian regime are concerned about the consequences of the revolutionary earthquake that has struck the region. It is true that they have taken the initiative by welcoming this, because it first struck their primary political opponents the Arab autocrats who have worked against them for decades, which is something that Syria also participated in, however when the sparks began to affect their allies, Iranian rhetoric changed with regards to welcoming what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, to uncertainty and issuing accusations of a Western plot against the Gulf. Iran is also continuing to try to win over post-revolutionary Egypt, but the Egyptians’ reverberations, and the settlement initiated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE towards the Gulf States, including Bahrain, have left Iran with bigger problems. It has failed to act quickly to implement its threats of intervention, but rather quite the opposite; we have seen a careful and diplomatic Iranian position in appreciation of the situation. Ali Akbar Salehi – the Iranian Foreign Minister – has tried to reopen the severed communication channel with Saudi Arabia, and change the hard-line rhetoric, whilst at the same time Iran has done what it does best from the shadows, namely support its allies from behind the curtain with money and arms.

However, the best evidence of Iran’s attempt to soften its position and rivalry with a number of countries it has clashed with over the past two years is the country’s resort to a “Plan B”, as Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Tariq Alhomayed put it, in his article “Iran looking beyond al-Assad” The Iranians know that they are going through a difficult stage, and regional rivals such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have shown exceptional boldness in confronting Iran via the Bahraini and Syrian files, therefore Iran is seeking to recoup some of its losses, and resort to alternative plans.

Over the past two weeks, Iran has put forward conciliatory rhetoric with more than one country, for after Russia voted on a draft sanction against Iran, which angered Tehran, the Iranian president, in an interview with the “Russia Today” television channel last Sunday, said that the cooperation on the Bushehr nuclear reactor is testament to the strength of Iran’s relations with Russia, and that Iran is not about to dispense with its strong relations with Russia, in a message that was interpreted as Iran being willing to turn the page on its differences with Russia. In the same context, Iran announced that it would begin exporting oil to India once more, after a dispute between the two countries against the backdrop of India delaying payment for oil in the manner desired by Iran to circumvent the UN sanctions, and this is a sign of Tehran’s desire to include India as an importer, so that it does not resort to buying its oil requirements from elsewhere on the Gulf market. In a striking development regarding its policy of containment that Iran has begun to practice towards Turkey, the Iranians announced that they had carried out a successful operation to strike the stronghold of the PKK, to the point that some Iranian media outlets claimed that the PKK leader Murat Karayilan, who has succeeded Abdullah Ocalan, had been arrested, prompting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to contact his Iranian counterpart to confirm this, although he denied this news. Nevertheless, this incident – according to Turkish writer Murad Atkan – has implications with regards to Iran’s attempts for rapprochement with Turkey, and reminds them of the sensitive Kurdish file. (What really happened yesterday? Hurriyet, 14 August 2011].

The Syrian events may be highly significant for the Iranian regime, and they – i.e. the Iranian leaders – have proven so far that they stand with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but we must not forget that the priority for the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards is the sustainability of the regime, and not to keep hold of losing cards. In this regard, a newspaper close to the Supreme Leader, and one of the most prominent newspapers in Iran, published an editorial calling for al-Assad “to activate political reforms before it is too late” (Jomhouri-e Eslami 28th July), warning him of the fate of Gaddafi, who used arms against his countrymen. At the same time remarks from some Iranian leaders have emerged, calling for an alternative [to Syria] in case the country drifts towards a civil war. Some observers argue that this talk of an alternative corresponds with the news about Tehran’s plans to finance the construction of a military base in Latakia, which may be the center of a newly formed armed faction, like Hezbollah, to represent the interests of Iran in the event of the fall of the al-Assad regime. In addition to that, Nuri al-Maliki, under pressure from Iran, has transformed into a voice of support for the al-Assad regime, as noted by the New York Times on the 12th of August.

Some may argue that such reports may carry a degree of exaggeration in order to portray that Iran will not let its interests disappear with the collapse of the al-Assad regime, but it is certain that the Iranian regime is working to find a “Plan B” in order to confront the change in the balance of power, due to the uprisings that have swept the region.

A few days ago, the Islamic Revolution Foundation for Research issued a publication entitled “The Fifteenth Night”, a book documenting the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s meeting with Iranian poets last year on the fifteenth night of Ramadan, a night which the Supreme Leader used to allocate every year to discuss Persian poetry, being one of his most important pastimes ever since he began studying the subject. Khamenei had previously written a book of literary criticism entitled “Iqbal: Manifestation of the Islamic Spirit” (1991).

Perhaps the Supreme Leader was too busy during Ramadan this year to allocate a night for poetry, but if he was instead pondering the “Arab Spring” in Syria, which perhaps spoiled his night, he would inevitably echo the words of Hafiz Shirazi:

Their months of life [or months of their lives] they spend in yearning

Whilst they prohibit us from enjoying the spring