Geopolitics

How The Syrian Regime's Downfall Could Make Everything Unravel In Iran

A billboard celebrating the leaders of the revolution in Tehran
A billboard celebrating the leaders of the revolution in Tehran
Thierry Kellner and Mohammad Reza Djalili*

It is hard to dispute that Iran's geopolitical importance, both internationally and regionally, has been on the rise over the past decade.

With the Arab Spring, the Islamic Republic saw a new opportunity. For Tehran, the Arab uprisings meant "the awakening of Islam," the rise of Islamist political parties sympathetic to Iran's plight, and a defeat for the Americans, Israel and the West.

But contrary to Tehran's expectations and to the regime's discourse, the Arab Spring does not herald a new ascending phase for Iranian power. Instead, it marks the beginning of a reversal of circumstances.

Tehran, which had initially presented itself as a supporter of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, was confronted with a dilemma when the Arab Spring reached Syria. Faced with the risk of its only real Arab ally being endangered, it decided to call the protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime a "foreign plot" instigated by Westerners.

Despite a slight hesitation during the summer of 2011 - at least rhetorically - Tehran supported and continues to support the Syrian regime by any means necessary. It has provided political backing and, in terms of security, it has relayed Syrian propaganda and advised the authorities on repression and cyber-warfare against opponents. Tehran has also provided key economic assistance to Damascus.

More recently, it threatened to activate its military alliance with Syria in the event of outside intervention. It finally tried to create a front of pro-Assad states during a recent diplomatic conference that was organized in the Iranian capital at the beginning of August - without great success.

It is true that its position has increased Iranian influence in Damascus in the short term. But it has already started to have negative effects for Tehran. For the past few months, longtime Palestinian allies Hamas have distanced themselves from Iran.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic's Lebanese ally - which also supports the Syrian regime - has seen its public image deteriorate in the Sunni world. Its isolation has increased in Lebanon, where some, even within the Shiite community, are questioning the legitimacy of this support for Damascus and the risks it incurs for all Shiites.

It is clearly going to become increasingly costly for this movement to maintain its proximity with Assad's regime - and a weakening of Hezbollah has repercussions for Tehran. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah and Hamas axis is already weakened.

A sullied image in Arab eyes

That's not all. Because of the situation in Syria, the close relations developed between Tehran and Ankara since the Islamist AKP came to power at the beginning of the last decade have also cooled. Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis further feeds Iran's ongoing rivalry with Saudi Arabia.

But more generally, Iran - like Hezbollah - had built a rather positive image in Arab public opinion because of its anti-Israeli positions, but it is now heavily criticized in the Sunni Arab world for lining up behind the Syrian regime.

In the longer term, if Assad's opponents end up toppling the power in Damascus, the Iranian regime will be in a very delicate position. If ties are cut with a potential new Syrian government, all of Tehran's policies in the region -- and across the Mediterranean -- will be put into question.

This will toll the bell on 30 years of Iranian foreign policy in the region, considerably reducing Tehran's influence in the Middle East. Turkey's position, on the other hand, will be reinforced after its condemnation of the regime's crackdown on rebels.

But whatever happens, Tehran will pay a political price for its unconditional support of Assad.

The downfall of the Syrian regime could also have consequences in Iraq, as the arrival of a Sunni power structure in Damascus could embolden the Iraqi Sunni minority, in a very unstable country where Iran's influence isn't as strong as some imagine.

And finally, the Syrian shock wave could have internal consequences in Iran, by showing that even an extremely violent regime cannot stand in the face of a determined opposition. This could revitalize the Iranian opposition, which was largely quieted after a bloody June 2009 crackdown of post-election protests.

Faced with the fall out of the Arab Spring and weakened by the 2009 events, confronted with an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy and deepening economic difficulties in the face of international sanctions for its nuclear program, the Iranian regime now risks finding itself on the "wrong side of history."

*Mohammad-Reza Djalili is a professor emeritus at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and Thierry Kellner is a political science professor at the Université Libre in Brussels.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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