Iran Wary As Regional Unrest Spreads

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A revolution in Syria would shake one of Syria's most powerful allies in the region: Iran. Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to the State Department on the region, discusses the role Iran is playing in the Middle East as revolution spreads.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A revolution in Syria would likely shake not only the country's Christian population, but one of Syria's most powerful allies in the region: Iran.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to the State Department on the region.

Mr. Takeyh, welcome.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks very much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: First of all, could you just explain the relationship between Iran and Syria?

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, it's at one point a peculiar relationship, yet at another level, it's an enduring one in the sense that this alliance is now three decades old.

And it's an alliance predicated on shared enmities, in a sense. Both parties oppose Israel. Both parties are in opposition to the United States. So it's one of those alliances that has come together not because they're like-minded states. Iran is a theocratic regime, Syria is sort of a Baathist police state. But nevertheless, it's an alliance predicated on shared concerns, if you would.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama accused Syria's President Assad of asking Iran for help to stop the demonstrations in Syria. Do you know anything about that?

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, it's entirely possible because the two countries have had a protracted intelligence cooperation. And so the security services of the two countries have often been cooperating together, particularly in terms of assisting Hezbollah and in terms of their respective interventions in Lebanon.

And Iran has had an experience, much more than the Baathist regime in Syria, in terms of dealing with popular protests that are increasingly using social media networks and other means of technology to mobilize themselves. So I think it's entirely possible that Iranians are advising the Syrian regime.

WERTHEIMER: It's sort of a curious thing to think about the ayatollah providing IT to Syria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, it - as I said, Iranians have had much more experience with the idea of how do you deal with protest movements that are nebulous in terms of their leadership, that rely on Facebook and other - Twitter and so on for mobilization of their support.

And Iranian security services have had special units to deal with sort of the Internet mobilized protests. So they may have some degree of purview on this issue.

WERTHEIMER: What are the implications for Iran if Syrian President Assad falls?

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, they're quite profound. Despite the claims of Iranian empowerment in the region, Syria has always been its most reliable ally. The Gulf Arab states are largely suspicious of Iran.

Egypt seems to be improving its relationship with Iran, but so long as the military and so forth are in power, it is unlikely to be a warm relationship.

So Iran can find itself much more isolated in the region. Syria was Iran's conduit for dealing with Hezbollah in terms of military and material assistance to Hezbollah forces. So that could be curtailed.

And also, if Syria is engulfed by popular protests leading to a demise of the regime, it's hard for me to see how Iran can remain as sort of an oasis of autocratic stability in the region, where political firmament is widespread.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think that means that the United States and the West would welcome to the fall of Bashar Assad?

Mr. TAKEYH: Well, on the one hand, Syria is one of the United States' most enduring problems in the Middle East. Yet on the other hand, what comes afterward is always something that's difficult to prognosticate, especially in case of Syria, with all its ethnic fragmentations and religious divisions and so forth.

It's entirely possible that Syria is going to collapse in civil disorder. It is entirely possible that we can see an attempt to severely even expunge as sort of a religious minority the Alawites.

And therefore you begin to see many (unintelligible). Some in Israel actually prefer to deal with Assad as opposed to a problematic future of instability and potential chaos.

WERTHEIMER: That's Ray Takeyh. He is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, the author of "The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran's Approach to the World."

Mr. Takeyh, thank you very much.

Mr. TAKEYH: Thanks for having me.

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