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We're going to look now at Iran's role in Syria's civil war. Iran is the Syrian government's biggest supporter. It's big regional rival, Saudi Arabia, backs the antigovernment rebels. The U.S. also backs the rebel opposition but has been divided over how much to get involved. NPR's Deborah Amos recently visited Tehran and found Iranians are also at odds over how to handle a war with no end in sight.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Syria is Iran's most important ally. Every student of international relations here at Tehran University knows about their enduring ties for decades. Yet you can also hear surprisingly frank questions about Iran's recent role in the Syrian bloodshed.

UNIDENTIIFED MAN: What's happening in Syria, it's related to us.

AMOS: It's related to Iran.

MAN: Of course it's related to Iran. What is happening is an obvious catastrophe.

AMOS: He doesn't give his name. Discussing Syria is sensitive. Iran is reportedly spending billions to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The student knows Syrian civilians are paying the price. Innocent children are killed every day, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But nothing happens. Why? Because the hideous fact of the balance of power. Nothing is being declared as a solution.

AMOS: A view shared by many Middle East analysts. Mohamad Bazzi, a U.S.-based academic, says the Syrian war has become a regional power struggle.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Iran has put its money, its resources, its manpower, its military behind the Assad regime. The Iranians are helping the regime survive day to day.

AMOS: But Iran's investment has come with unexpected costs. The war has destabilized Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran has allies. Tehran's popularity has plummeted in the Arab world. The rivalry with Saudi Arabia is dangerous for the region, says Bazzi.

BAZZI: I think the only way to get a settlement to the Syrian crisis is for both the Iranians and the Saudis to drop this winner-take-all mentality.

AMOS: A chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last August raised the stakes, especially for the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, elected on promises of better ties with the West. Iran surprisingly prodded Assad to give up his chemical arsenal say diplomats and regional analysts, even sent advisors to help Syria comply with the U.S.-led disarmament plan.

The motivation for that can be seen in a museum in the Iranian. It's the Peace Museum, where Iranians are reminded of their own trauma from chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Dr. Shahrier Khateri runs a program for survivors.

SHAHRIAR KHATERI: Because we are the only country which was heavily targeted by chemical weapons after the First World War, we know how cruel is chemical warfare.

AMOS: Officially, Iran blamed Syrian rebels rather than the Syrian military for the August attacks, but stopped short of defending the Assad regime. It was a notable omission, say diplomats in Tehran. For Dr. Khateri, it was no surprise.

KHATERI: Under any circumstances, by anyone, use of chemical warfare is inhuman, is prohibited.

AMOS: Iran is a ally of the Syrian government and yet, when it came to chemical weapons, that didn't matter.

KHATERI: That's the red line. We have a very clear position about that.

AMOS: Less clear, Iran's position on how to end the war. At a restaurant in Tehran, I meet an advisor to the Rouhani government.

NASSER HADIAN: My name is Nasser Hadian. I'm a professor of international relations at Tehran University.

AMOS: Despite the chemical weapon deal, international and regional rivalries still block progress to end the war.

HADIAN: To be frank with you, I'm not all that optimistic. But anyway, one has to hope that it can be resolved. We have to do our best.

AMOS: Last month, Hadian published a provocative article proposing Iran end support for Syria's Assad. He may win the war, but Assad is tearing Syria apart, he says.

HADIAN: No way that he can rule Syria. The point is how to convince him to leave power.

AMOS: Is that a popular opinion here?

HADIAN: If you go to the population, yes, it is. But as I said, there are powerful groups who would think otherwise.

AMOS: Iran must play a role in any solution for Syria, says Hadian, and regional analysts agree. But Tehran is still divided on a way out of the crisis. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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