Selectively Supporting Democracy

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 8, 2011

Anyone really surprised to read this?

Iran’s government celebrated the popular uprisings first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. But when protests began in Syria, Iran turned uneasy and uncertain.

Syria is one of Iran’s few real allies in the Arab Middle East, and Tehran has carefully cultivated a relationship with the ruling Assad family for more than 30 years.

If Syria’s President Bashar Assad falls, Iran can no longer count on Syria. And among other benefits, the Syrian connection is crucial for Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Bruce Riedel, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, notes that for Iran, it is no longer a simple matter of praising the people in the streets and condemning their rulers.

“If the Syrian government is toppled, in a revolution like Egypt’s or Tunisia’s, Iran will be the big loser, and the Iranian intelligence services will have lost a key ally in their ability to project power in the Middle East,” Riedel says.

Iran’s news media have gone quiet on Syria, leaving Iranians to rely on satellite TV for coverage of the protests there. As the demonstrations in Syria have spread and hundreds of people have been shot, Iran’s leaders have said next to nothing.

Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Wilson International Center’s Middle East program in Washington, says the Iranian leaders are at a loss — they simply cannot take up the cause of the Syrian protesters as they did with earlier Arab demonstrations.

“The best excuse is to blame it not on the grievances of the population but say that these are foreign-instigated uprisings by the Israelis and the Americans,” Esfandiari says.

All of this provides an excellent reason to support the pro-democracy movement in Syria. I am entirely sympathetic to the pro-democracy movement in Libya as well, but unlike Libya, a change in regime in Syria could actually help significantly advance American interests in the region, while curbing the power of the Iranian regime to influence events. But even putting all of this aside, imagine the hypocrisy of the regime. When pro-democracy movements take out governments and leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, the regime is all for them. But when they threaten the regime of Bashar al-Assad, not a peep is heard about the pro-democracy movement through official Iranian news channels.

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