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We're focusing this week on how Iran fits into its neighborhood. Today we travel to Iran's closest ally in the Middle East, Syria. In fact, Syria is Iran's only ally in the region and the two countries make an odd couple, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS: Stop in at any of the Middle East think tanks in Washington, ask about the alliance between Iran and Syria, and you'll hear one assessment again and again.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): I think the Syrian/Iranian relationship has been the strongest, most sustained relationship between any two countries in the Middle East over the last quarter century.

AMOS: That's Robert Malley with the International Crisis Group. He agrees it is an unusual partnership. For one thing, Syria is a secular regime. In the 1980s, the Army gunned down thousands of Islamist revolutionaries and jailed many more. Iran is all about revolution, say Malley, under the banner of Islam.

Mr. MALLEY: It's unlikely at one level. I mean, there's one very secular and one very religious regime. One is Arab, the other is Persian. One has negotiated with Israel, the other one has had no dealings with Israel. And yet they have found common interests, common enemies, and that's what's made this relationship both intriguing but also extremely solid.

(Soundbite of street noise)

AMOS: Stop here in Damascus, Syria's busy capital, ask any Syrian official, and what you will get is a list of reasons for the strong ties with Iran.

Mohammed Habash, head of the Iranian/Syrian Friendship Committee in parliament, says it's all about common enemies.

Mr. MOHAMMED HABASH (Iranian/Syrian Friendship Committee): We believe that American agenda in the Middle East it's so danger against the people in the Middle East. Iran believes same. We consider Israel as our enemy. This is exactly what Iran believes.

AMOS: Common enemies have meant common interests - economic interests, says Abdullah Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs.

Mr. ABDULLAH DARDARI (Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs): It's political and economics. Can you separate the two? Naturally, we have good political relations and most of the businessmen that come from Iran are telling us that they see in Syria a virgin land for investment.

AMOS: And Iran has invested - in an oil refinery, a car factory. The government has signed cooperation agreements for telecommunication, housing, and agricultural projects. The total package: about $3 billion, say Dardari.

Mr. DARDAN: Yes, $3 billion. So the sky is the limit.

AMOS: But take a look on the streets of Damascus and you'll find that most Syrians have never warmed to the alliance.

(Soundbite of street noise)

AMOS: At a mosque in the central of the capital, there are crowds of Iranian pilgrims. They're here to visit a historic Shiite shrine - the women in long black cloaks, the men chanting Shiite prayers with deep public emotions.

(Soundbite of prayers)

AMOS: More than one million Iranians visit every year. It's a huge boost for Syria's economy. But there are no Syrians at the shrine. There's hardly any people-to-people contact at all. There's no common language, and as for Islamic traditions, there's a deep divide.

Iranians are predominately Shiites. While Syria's ruling elite is most Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, the vast majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.

So what has cemented this alliance for 25 years? A mutual suspicion and fear of neighboring Iraq.

Professor JOSH LANDIS (University of Oklahoma): It's a classic balance of power game. When Iraq is strong and threatens both countries, the two neighbors, Syria and Iran, have to come together and protect themselves.

AMOS: That's Josh Landis, an American professor visiting Damascus. He explains that Saddam Hussein brought Iran and Syria together in the 1980s.

Prof. LANDIS: Saddam Hussein would not only start a war against Iran, but he was funding and supporting anti-Syrian elements and the Muslim Brotherhood here. So both regimes were threatened. They had to come together and be against Saddam Hussein.

AMOS: The Iranian/Syrian alliance drifted apart in the 1990s when Saddam was weak. But Iraq became a threat again in 2003, says Landis.

Prof. LANDIS: Now, as soon as America landed in Iraq in 2003 and said, I am going to blow apart both the Iranian and Syrian regimes and change the entire Middle East - voop! - the relationship between Iran and Syria became strong again, because America was in Iraq threatening both countries. So Iraq was strong.

AMOS: As the Iraq war dragged on, Iran became stronger too. Oil prices were rising and then American-sponsored elections in Iraq brought to power a Shiite dominated government friendly to Tehran. Iran began to challenge American influence, not just in Iraq but in the region. Iran's partnership with Syria deepened again, says Vali Nasr with the Council of Foreign Relations.

Mr. VALI NASR (Council of Foreign Relations): It's the United States that's defined these two governments as an axis of trouble in the region.

AMOS: The U.S. points to Lebanon as one example of that trouble. Iran and Syria support Hezbollah. And then there's Gaza, where both regimes back Hamas. Iran is certainly the stronger partner, says Nasr, but Syria is important too, because Damascus is Iran's lone ally in the heart of the Arab world, where anti-American sentiments are strong.

Mr. NASR: Iran is the driver. Syria is not the one who is on the barricades confronting the U.S., but Syria has decided or benefited from the fact that it's hitched its wagon to Iran.

AMOS: But, says Nasr, the sectarian war in Iraq could drive these allies apart.

Mr. NASR: Iran and Syria are supporting opposite sides in Iraq.

AMOS: In broad terms, Iran supports the Shiite dominated government. But Syria, a predominantly Sunni country, sees interest with Iraq's Sunni minorities, says Nasr.

Mr. NASR: In fact, Syria in many ways is doing the work of the Arab world in providing the actual physical support for the insurgency. Syria is part of the Arab world when it comes to Iraq.

AMOS: Political analyst Josh Landis agrees.

Prof. LANDIS: So as soon as the United States leaves and all the powers are trying to figure out who's going to rule Iraq and how, Syria is going to want Sunnis to have more power, Iran is going to want Shiites to have more power, and they're going to fall out over this.

AMOS: But for now, with the U.S. in Iraq, Iran and Syria's alliance is as strong as ever.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Our series continues tomorrow with the threat Iran might pose to Israel. Though Israel has tense relations with its Arab neighbors, it finds the threats from Iran especially alarming.

Unidentified Man: The Iranian government is the only government around the world which speaks explicitly about the elimination of the state of Israel. There is no other government in the world which speaks this way, not even Arab government, not even Syrians, not even the Libyans. Iran is the only government we avoid.

MONTAGNE: Earlier this week we heard how Iran has benefited from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hear that story and the rest of our series on Iran and its neighborhood at npr.org.

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