Like all other twentieth century revolutions, there were ambitions to export the Iranian Revolution immediately following its eruption. The Iranians thought the revolution could be portrayed from a cultural standpoint, in the sense that other countries might seek to emulate Iran. During this period, Iranian propaganda sought to spread Tehran’s influence across the Islamic world in general and the Middle East in particular. However following an eight year war with Iraq, Tehran came to the conclusion that exporting the revolution would be economically and politically expensive and would not only isolate Iran, it could even threaten the Tehran regime’s survival.
Iranian Professor Mansour Farhang argues that, although it spoke of exporting the revolution in the name of Islam, Iran aimed at exporting the Shi’ite concept of Islam.
Farhang draws similarities between this situation and that of Iran under the rule of Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who aimed to ensure that Tehran was a major regional power by allying with the United States. This alliance was not underpinned by religious or Shi’ite components; rather, it was raised in the name of Iranian nationalism. The Islamic Republic has the same ambition today, albeit with an added ideological dimension; the Shi’ite ideology.
Professor Farhang has been teaching International Relations and Middle East Politics at Bennington College, Vermont, in the US, since 1983. He had previously worked as an advisor at the Iranian Foreign Ministry and was then appointed as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. He resigned from his position after his efforts to release US hostages held at the US embassy in Tehran failed. In the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war, he worked together with international mediators to put an end to the conflict. It was during that period that he wrote and spoke extensively about the many dangers of religious extremism that dominated the course of the Iranian revolution.
I asked him about the reasons why Iran is holding tight to Syria today. He replied that Syria was the only country to have supported and endorsed the Iranian Revolution since the start. “After Saddam’s fall, Iran saw a new opportunity in Syria.”
“The irony is that when George W. Bush said that he had received divine guidance to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, Iran was the only state where such claims were taking seriously. I remember that during a Friday prayer, an Imam said that God works in mysterious ways, and that Bush had been divinely inspired to topple Saddam,” Farhang said.
The Syrian professor argues that “In the eyes of Iran, the invasion of Iraq was intended by God in order to fulfill Tehran’s ambitions.”
Syria became even more important after the Shi’ites got to power in Iraq as the Shia scope of influence expanded from Iran to Iraq and then from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. After the invasion of Iraq, Iran became Syria’s “fatted calf”. Up until 2010, before the start of the Syrian revolution, Iran also supported the Syrian economy.
Professor Farhang told me: “The Syrian government is exploiting Iran to stay in power. The regime of Bashar Al-Assad is the most secular dictatorship in the Middle East and if Bashar’s wife were to walk in Tehran’s streets, she would be arrested and whipped.” According to the Iranian regime’s perspective, Tehran views Syria as an anti-Sunni state rather than a theocratic one. Iran’s relationship with Syria is, according to this perspective, similar to its relationship with North Korea.
Before the civil war broke out in Syria, Iran had concluded a ten billion dollar agreement to build a pipeline through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in order to export Iranian gas. The agreement was never implemented. Others projects with Syrian banks were also halted due to the international sanctions that were imposed on Syria.
Farhang stressed: “The Syrian issue lies in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the government of President Hassan Rouhani does not have a say in it. However, Syria is becoming more and more costly to Iran, especially given that there are no short-term prospects of a political resolution to the crisis. Nevertheless, Syria remains a crucial component in Iran’s policy to becoming the dominating power in the region.”
I asked the Professor whether Syria could be considered Iran’s Vietnam. He agreed but said that Iran does not have a comparable military presence in the country. The actual size of the Iranian military presence in Syria is unknown. while Iran claims that any military figures present across the border are “consultants” or there for training purposes. In any case, it is clear that Syria has become an extremely costly problem for the Iranians.
Does Iran support Syria or does it only care about Bashar Al-Assad? Professor Farhang replied: “Iranians acknowledge that the situation in Syria is not similar to that of Egypt and Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, there is a handful of groups who rule the country. Sidelining Bashar would mean sidelining the ruling elite. There is no independent military institution or security apparatus in Syria. The state there is a ‘family affair’ and if Bashar were to leave, there would be no one left around the negotiation table.”
“There is no political solution to this tragedy; one of the two sides has to lose. It is very improbable that a coalition government would include the Alawites. As the Iranians are fully aware of all of this, they have exerted a great deal of effort to back Bashar, his family, and his entourage,” he added.
I asked the Professor whether he thinks that we are witnessing another Palestinian tragedy in the Middle East. He replied: “The situation is extremely tragic. America’s 60 Minutes television show hosted an American photographer who was detained and tortured over a period of 230 days by the Al-Nusra Front. It was a very painful account. We must realize that the people fighting the regime are some of the worst that exist in terms of human and civil rights and freedoms.’
He added: “The Syrian tragedy is worse than the Palestinian catastrophe, with 120,000 people killed so far and a third of the population displaced.”
As for why Iran doesn’t open the gates to Syrian refugees, Professor Farhang said that Irna has no interest in the humanitarian situation in Syria.
“When the Shi’ite community in Bahrain were persecuted, or when the rights of the Hazara people of Afghanistan were violated, Iran spoke up about the rights of the Shia. It is only when Shi’ite rights are at stake that Iran adopts the rhetoric of human rights and civil freedoms. Whereas when it comes to Syria, it is indifferent to the humanitarian situation. Iran has not donated a single penny to support Syrian refugees,” Professor Farhang said.
Syria has become the region’s “sick man,” but will its collapse as a state have an impact on Iran? Professor Farhang argues that the fall of the Syrian regime will not affect the standing of Iraq, its Shi’ite dominated government, or its ability to mobilize other Shi’ites in the region.
Just as Russia, China, France and Cuba all realized that revolutions cannot be exported, Iran will end up reaching the same conclusion. Professor Farhang argues that “Iran’s rapprochement with the West in order to settle the nuclear issue indicates that it is sensing danger. At the outset of the revolution, the discourse was religious, and the government was capable of promoting its cause. Now, after 34 years, no concrete results have been achieved. Iran will not be an exception.”