By Jim Miles
Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East. Jubin M. Goodarzi. I.B. Taurus & Co. New York/London. 2009
In a well structured academic work, Jubin M. Goodarzi details the interactions of the two countries ‘In response to acts of aggression orchestrated by Iraq (1980) and Israel (1982), in both cases with the prior knowledge and tacit support of the USA.’ His position is that it has been ‘a defensive alliance aimed at neutralizing Iraqi and Israeli offensive capabilities in the Gulf and Near East, and thwarting American encroachment in the Middle East.’
While the work contains many reiteration of ideas, as necessitated by the many interweavings of different diplomatic efforts, they emphasize several ongoing themes: opposition to Israeli interests in the region (with Syria being the only active frontline state against Israel); support of the Palestinians (with major complications along the way vis a vis Beirut and Southern Lebanon); antagonism towards U.S. interests in the region (and their original tacit, now overt support of Israel); and the convoluted manoeuvrings between Arab countries, some aligned with Israel, some against, and both groups desperately balancing rhetoric and actions to maintain their own status and power within the region.
Without too much effort, the reader will come away with the feeling that while the Palestinian cause is a genuine concern for Arab freedom, when it comes to the negotiations of the political elites, the Palestinians play a much diminished role. They become at times simply pawns in the great game of chess being played out in the Middle East. It was not until the end of the era under discussion (up to 1989-90), after the Iran-Iraq war finally ended, that Arab concerns were able to bring the Palestinian cause to the fore, and even then it took the events of the First Intifada to really raise the issue to a pan-Arab consciousness. The latter perhaps indicating that with an active Palestinian resistance making headlines, the elites of the Arab countries had to worry about the effects of the uprising on their own populations.
It is obvious to anyone paying attention to current events and current ‘modern’ history that the U.S. has had a long held interest in the strategic and resource value of the Middle East. Originally this involved containing the Soviet Union and negotiating with the compliant Arab countries to secure their oil supplies. With the rise of Gorbachev and the subsequent devolution of the Soviet Empire, the main concern became oil and the support of Israel as an offshore garrison to secure the region. The recent struggle of the resurgent Russia and the rising power of China and India still keeps the region as a focus of U.S. containment-energy policy.
U.S. policy in the region has only “reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the period after the cold war.” At the same time, Syria recognized the limits of Arab power as “Both these Arab countries [Egypt, Saudi Arabia] remained close political allies of the USA and were heavily dependent on it for their military and security requirements.” Their economic dependence is allied with these other dependencies.
As events progressed the alliance continued to strengthen rather than weaken. “Since the beginning of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Syria and Iran have intensified their contacts and tried to coordinate their policies to meet the new challenge.” The ongoing chapters that yet need to be written include the success of the Hezbollah in repelling the Israeli attacks in the summer of 2006 and the rise of Hamas within Palestinian politics.
In his introduction and closing Goodarzi re-emphasizes this point. “…since the end of the Cold War, US hegemony in the Middle East has reinforced the logic of an alliance between Syria and Iran.”
A Durable Alliance
The alliance between Syria and Iran has not been without its strengths and weaknesses, without its moment when it appeared to outside observers that it was weak and open to manipulation – meaning mostly separating Syria from Iran based on its Arabic roots.
Goodarzi identifies the paradox of two countries with different ideologies maintaining the alliance over the period of time that it has. The two states “have different ideologies” and both have been “fiercely independent states,” yet at the same time “found it expedient to cooperate to thwart Iraqi and Israeli designs in the region and to frustrate US moves that implicitly or explicitly supported Tel Aviv and Baghdad.”
Iranian interests in Syria were several: support of the Shiite Hezbollah population through which it could influence Israel; placing Iraq in a possible two front war; further containment of Iraq through strategic actions (shutting down the Iraqi oil pipeline, providing airbase support); and on the diplomatic front, establishing the argument that the Iraqi war was not a Persian-Arab conflict, but a war against Israel, foreign intrusion, and compliant Arab regimes.
Syrian interests included support for its interests in Lebanon, the same argument concerning the Persian-Arab definition of the war, its ability to play a surprisingly strong diplomatic role between Iran and other Arab states (and the following benefits that yielded), and mutual antagonism to U.S. adventurism in Lebanon.
The alliance was not without difficulties. The lowest point arrived during the final stage of the Lebanon war, with the Amal militia confronting the rising power of the Hezbollah. While the two sides were supporting opposite sides in the fight for Southern Beirut, they continued their intensive diplomatic negotiations and eventually succeeded in reaching a successful compromise. Other areas of conflict concerned the ongoing attempts by the Arab countries to achieve a pan-Arab rapprochement with Syria, yet behind the scenes Syria remained steadfast in its support of Iran.
Goodarzi provide excellent summaries of his ideas, and the leading word in most cases is “overall”, an indicator that he is about to provide a succinct clear summary of the previous section. Considered with the quotes above and the strength of Goodarzi’s arguments, the alliance – while not without its ongoing conflicts but at the same time strengthened by its commonalities and ability to negotiate through the difficult times – the alliance remains a viable and resilient force in the Middle East. In his closing conclusion he states,
“Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Khomeini and their successors have viewed the region as a strategic whole and regard their alliance as a vital tool with which to further Arab-Islamic interests and increase regional autonomy by diminishing foreign penetration of the Middle East. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years, both countries have put long -term interests before short-term gains. It is noteworthy that the USA has very little leverage over them today and that they have both staved off isolation in the post cold-war era. Although…not always…successful…their potential to thwart the ambitions of other actors…cannot be denied.”
Goodarzi’s work is a good treatise on the diplomatic manoeuvrings between the two countries and the Arab countries around them. It is academically well written, but might prove a bit repetitive – as was the nature of the alliance and its negotiations, especially during the years concerning the Iraq-Iran war – to maintain the interest of a someone more interested in the ebb and flow of military history in the region. Even with that critique, it is a valuable book that should be read by anyone interested in the general relationships between all the countries in the area. Iran is frequently in the Western media; Syria is as well but its critical role within its alliance with Iran does is not well presented or well understood. This book gives the alliance its proper strength within the workings of Middle East geostrategy.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications