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IRAN: Tehran squirms as crackdown by ally Syria creates global uproar

April 27, 2011 |  9:11 am

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Iranian officials and state-run media for as long as they could have turned a blind eye to the weeks-long unrest in Syria. But as the turbulence in Syria and international outrage over the hundreds killed gain momentum, many Iranian diplomats, pundits and academics can evade the question no longer.

In an interview on Iran's Arabic-language Alam TV on Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, unable to sidestep addressing the concerns about unrest in Syria, vaguely and tactfully stated that Iran respected the sovereignty of other countries.

But then, in a turn of boldness that many consider hypocritical, he subtly advised the Syrian regime to give in to democratic demands that Iran has long denied its own people

"We respect the demands of [Syria’s] people," he said. "We consider the use of violence againt the people of any country unacceptable. We call on all regional regimes to address the demands of their people."

Indeed, officials in Iran are nervously watching the uprising in Syria more closely than they would like to admit. 

During a candid conversation with Babylon & Beyond, an Iranian foreign ministry expert praised Syrian President Bashar Assad's gentleness while recalling the story of the city of Hama, where Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, crushed a revolt in 1982. 

"The regime in Syria is monolithic and Alawites are 2 million in a population of 23 million," he said, referring to the Alawite religious minority which includes the Assads and many influential Syrians.
"Alalwites have managed to run the country for the past 40 years. President Bashar Assad is an educated and soft-spoken politician. At the end of the day, people in Syria will appreciate the wise role of the incumbent regime."

The comments seem contradictory and unintelligible, but they express well the squirmy position of a Tehran regime that has enthusiastically backed revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia while balking now that it's pal Syria is in the hotseat.  

"Syria has been our strategic ally since the beginning of the revolution," said one hard-line member of parliament, Reza Foladgar. "We believe that the nature of protests in Syria is different from what is going on in Libya, Bahrain, Tunis and Egypt."

Why the distinction?

"The Syrian government is anti-Israeli and its rulers are not stooges of the U.S.A. as the rulers in Bahrain are, or as the previous leaders of Tunis and Egypt were," he said.

"I am sure elements from abroad are instigating some unrest in Syria," he said. "I hope the regime takes initiative to reform and the people are careful of the plots of enemies."

It is a common opinion among hard-liners in Iranian government and society that turmoil in Syria is a meal being cooked in foreign kitchens. 

Some Iranian officials and agents merely parrot the lines of Assad's cronies. Mohammad Karamirad, another Iranian member of parliament, holds puritanical Salafi and Wahhabi Sunni Muslim "agents" responsible for sabotaging the Syrian regime. 

"Seventy percent of the unrest in Syria is instigated by Salafis supported both by Saad Hariri in Lebanon as well as the Mossad [the Israeli security agency] and the CIA, in an effort to topple the regime in Syria and weaken resistance to Israel," said Ahmad Bakhayesh, an Iranian academic in Tehran. 

Asked to explain the double standard regarding the Arab uprisings brazenly adopted by the Islamic republic, Mehdi Motahari, a political scientist at Azad University, responded that other countries were hypocritical, too.  

"The United States does not respond to the events in Bahrain the same way it responds to those in Libya," he said. "National interests justify the means." 

The reformist camp in Iran, however, is a little more even-handed in its interpretation of the wave of revolution that has engulfed the Arab world. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a reformist analyst, believes that realities on the ground in Syria show that the winds of change are blowing across the entire Middle East.

"Iran should not do anything but accept the demands of the Syrian people, whatever they are," he said. 

"Killing protesters in any country should be condemned, whether in Syria, Bahrain, Libya or Egypt," said Qodratullah Alikhani, a reformist lawmaker. "The demands of the people should be heeded in any country."

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak through an interpreter in Tehran during an earlier meeting. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

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