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Growing Ties Between Iran and Syria

In recent months, Syria and Iran have signed sweeping economic, trade and defense agreements, consolidating one of the most enduring relationships in the Middle East. But some western observers worry that this cooperation between two nations widely seen as pariahs may lead to a transfer of Iranian nuclear technology.

Modern Iranian-Syrian friendship dates back to the early 1980s. After a steady deterioration in Syrian-Iraqi relations, Damascus broke away from the Arab world to support Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War [1980-1988].

Since then, Iran and Syria have continued to build on what some experts call “a rock solid relationship.”

A Marriage of Convenience

Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former U.S. State Department intelligence official, says solidifying this friendship with recently signed defense and economic agreements serves the interests of both Iran and Syria.

“On the one hand, we have an Islamic republic [in Iran] with very robust religious credentials and leanings. And on the other side, we have a secular Baathist regime [in Syria], which has always viewed as its most serious internal threat, Islamic extremists. So this is very much a marriage of convenience and not really a marriage between two ideologies that see eye-to-eye,” says White.

A marriage of convenience that, most experts point out, is taking place between two nations living in isolation. The Hoover Institution’s Abbas Milani, an Iranian studies expert, says this leaves few options for Iran and Syria but to try to make themselves less vulnerable to external threats.

“If you look at the Middle East or the wider Mediterranean or the wider Persian Gulf regions, every country other than these two, sees Syria and Iran as troublemakers. The U.N. investigation that is getting closer to indicting some of the leadership in Syria for conspiracy to murder [former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] in Lebanon has put the Syrians on the defensive. And the nuclear discussion with the West has put Iran on the defensive. This has made it aware that it has no allies,” says analyst Abbas Milani.

But it is not just isolation that brings Damascus and Tehran together. Some analysts say there is a split in Damascus over who should be Syria’s allies.

George Washington University’s Director of Middle Eastern Studies, Murhaf Jouejati, says one segment of the leadership wants Syria to be closer to Europe and the West, while the other is looking to Iran.

“That first camp that wants to stay close to the Europeans has had their wrists slapped by the European Union, which has postponed talks on a trade agreement between the E.U. and Syria. Western pressure is only throwing Syria into the arms of Iran. It is only radicalizing would-be moderates in Damascus. The Syrian government feels under pressure from both within and from without. And the more pressure it feels, the more it is going to need a strategic ally, and who best than Iran,” says Jouejati.

But most analysts agree that Iran and Syria would not be able to help each other militarily in the face of a U.S. western or Israeli threat. Iran and Syria are not geographically contiguous. Even if they were, many observers argue that both have aging military equipment and enough domestic political and economic problems to discourage such cooperation.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Nevertheless, some analysts, including George Washington University’s Murhaf Jouejati, say Syria gives Iran a number of strategic benefits. He goes on to say, “Syria is Iran’s first line of fire. Iran manages its relationship with Hizbullah and with the Palestinians using Syria as a conduit. Iran has great leverage against the United States and Israel by having an ally in Hizbullah that happens to also be allied to Damascus. So here, strategically, Iran gains a lot. In addition, Syria is contiguous to Iraq and that may be a further conduit for jihadists going into Iraq.”

In return, Syria receives low-cost oil, numerous Iranian-built industrial and agricultural projects, and a much-needed boost to its stagnant economy by trading with Iran. Syrian estimates put the value of their bilateral trade at around $60 million last year, with Iranian imports accounting for about $57 million.

But some western observers are wary of this rapprochement. A few even worry that Iran may transfer nuclear technology to Syria. But the Middle East Institute’s Wayne White argues that this type of exchange is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

“First, you have the problem of figuring out what kind of technology the Iranians have. The Syrians have virtually nothing. No [nuclear] industry, no industrial establishment whatsoever besides a few small research capabilities. It would take many, many years for the Iranians to transfer anything to the Syrians. And, quite frankly, should Iran ever achieve a nuclear weapon, that would probably be something they would never transfer to Syria.”

Many experts add that Iran has not shared its missile technology with Syria and Hizbullah because it fears that it would be held accountable if it were used against the United States or Israel.

That, however, has not hindered Iran’s cooperation with Syria. And some observers say that, short of a sectarian civil war in Iraq that could polarize Tehran and Damascus, the Iranian-Syrian alliance is likely to continue to flourish.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.