Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East by Jubin M. Goodarzi (I.B. Tauris London, 2009) Reviewed by Mateen Rokhsefat

Written by admin on September 8th, 2010

Jubin Goodarzi’s dense book is full of detailed historical events mapping the thirty year long Syrian-Iranian alliance. Goodarzi effectively reiterates his main points throughout the book. He maintains that with careful research and analysis he has detailed the origins and development of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, a feat different from other scholars who only provide a general overview of the formative years. He points to several key reasons for the alliance to have remained resilient and united for the past thirty years: regime survival in view of their authoritarian nature; a defensive alliance against Iraqi, Israeli and American encroachment in the Middle East; maintaining national security and the territorial integrity and independence of each country; their different areas of concern (Gulf for Iran and Levant for Syria) does not interfere with each other.

In his first chapter, Goodarzi explains that inter-Arab politics and revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy orientation and ideology were critical factors for this alliance. In late 1970s, the relation between Syria and Pahlavi Iran was severely damaged due to Iran’s close ties with Israel which prompted Syria to welcome the new Iranian government. Another deciding factor was the contentious relationship of both countries with Iraq. Iraq’s invasion of Iran brought Syria and Iran closer together, with Syria providing valuable diplomatic and military aid. Many expected Syria to join other Arab countries in backing Saddam against non-Arab Iran. However, Syria supported Iran and played a key role in preventing a united Arab front against Iran which strengthened the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement and transformed it into a formal alliance. Syria saw in Iran a powerful non-Arab ally that would increase the ability of the Arab states to undermine Israeli and Western power in the region and provide leverage against Syria’s Arab rivals.

Chapter two examines the period between 1982 and 1985 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and engaging Syria in the fifth Arab-Israeli war. Iran having pushed the war inside Iraq reciprocated Syria’s help and lent support by mobilizing Lebanon’s Shiites to drive out Israeli and Western forces.  These events created a period of even closer cooperation between Syria and Iran against their common enemies. However, by 1984 Iraq became the stronger partly due to rapprochement with Washington and Moscow and played a main role in “the Reagan administration’s overall approach to safeguard Western interests against states such as Iran and Syria.”

The third chapter covers the 1985-1988 phase which was the most critical and tumultuous time in the alliance when the two allies developed conflicting agendas. Areas of contention included Iran’s support of Hezbollah who was at odds with Syria-supported Amal. In addition, Arab states and the USSR were pressuring Syria to abandon Iran and there were signs of rapprochement with previously staunch enemies: Jordan and Iraq.  However, by late 1980s, their partnership had solidified and they had overcome difficulties by handling the extremely turbulent crises in Lebanese and Gulf politics. Goodarzi explains that Syria and Iran: “saw a unique role for themselves in the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term, and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region.”

The very concise final chapter explains why the alliance lasted beyond the 1980s and into the 21st century. The Kuwait crisis changed the entire political equation in the Middle East overnight and gave Syria and Iran opportunities to capitalize on the new situation and recoup their positions. Furthermore, Iraq’s attack on another Arab country and the subsequent division in the Arab world provided an opportunity for both Iran and Syria to reconcile with Arab and Western governments and to break out of their regional and international isolation. Goodarzi states that the United States was a main reason for the fortification of Syrian-Iranian alliance in the late 1990s and specifically after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Overall, Washington’s pro-Israeli stance in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, its support for the emergence of a Turkish-Israeli alliance after 1996 to isolate Iran and cow Syria into submission, and its willingness to exploit Iran-Gulf Arab differences to justify military presence and huge arms sales to its regional allies reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the period after the cold war.”  Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and increased US domination and presence in the Middle East, Syria and Iran have become more resolved in reinforcing their alliance.

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Mateen Rokhsefat is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Affairs at the University of Toronto

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