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Middle East

Tehran's religious powder keg in Syria

The kidnapping of Iranians near Damascus has exposed the dangers of Tehran's pro-Assad course in Syria's civil war. The conflict there could ignite a spasm of Sunni militancy that threatens Iran's own Islamist order.

At least 48 Iranians were kidnapped in Syria last weekend, as they were traveling back from a Shiite pilgrimage site at Sayeda Zeinab to the airport in the capital, Damascus. Tehran maintains that the abducted were innocent pilgrims.

But their captors, members of the Al-Baraa Martyrdom Brigades, claim that the Iranians were members of the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guard. As evidence, the kidnappers showed the captives' identification documents in front of cameras.

A grab from a handout video made available by Al-Arabiya channel on 05 August 2012, stating it shows a man dressed as an officer of the Free Syrian Army (2-R) called Abdul Nasser al-Shumeir, and the group of kinapped Iranians sitting behind him, in an unspecified location in Syria. According to media reports on 05 August, members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard were among the Iranians kidnapped by rebels from a bus in Damascus, a Syrian who defected from the army to join the rebels claimed in video broadcast on 05 August by Al-Arabiya.

Syrian rebels have targeted Iranians

But what do the stamps and endorsements on the Iranians' IDs really prove? The idea that a state would document the identity and function of its covert forces in their papers seems far fetched.

But Walter Posch of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs points to another reason for skepticism. Young men in Iran can fulfill their mandatory military service in the Revolutionary Guards. And although their service would indeed be reflected in their IDs, according to Posh that would only prove that they had a history with the Guards. Everything else would be speculation.

The Islam expert Udo Steinbach also cautions against jumping to conclusions. The shrine at Sayeda Zeinab is one of the traditional pilgrimage sites for Iran's Shiites, so the presence of Iranians is not uncommon there. But Steinbach says that Tehran often mixes its religious and political ambitions.

The Islam expert believes it's possible - though not proven - that the pilgrimages also function as a component of Iran's intelligence and military presence in Syria.

The religion of power politics

Regardless of whether or not the kidnappers' claims against the Iranians are grounded in truth, the situation reflects the character of Iran and Syria's decades-long relationship. The neighbors' relations are built on both religious confession and political interest, without drawing a clear line between the two.

Religion and politics are two sides of the same coin for Damascus and Tehran. Both countries are ruled by Shiite governments, a circumstance that has isolated both states in the overwhelming Sunni-dominated politics of the region.

In this Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 file photo, Iranian Revolutionary Guards members march during a parade ceremony, marking the 28th anniversary of the onset of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran.

The Syrian opposition has accused the Iran of meddling in the conflict

Steinbach says that this isolation is one of the factors that has defined Syria's foreign policy since Hafez Assad seized power in the 1970s.

"Assad's Alawite religious group has a major interest in asserting itself politically," Steinbach told DW. "Damascus has pursued that end by reaching out to Iran - not just for religious reasons, but also for power politics."

Iran's Sunni dilemma

The political pragmatism that underlies a relationship defined superficially by religion is motivating Iran's current policy toward Syria. According to Posch, religion no longer stands in the foreground for Iran when it comes to Syria.

Tehran has already written off the Assad regime. The Islamic Republic is now seeking to position itself so that it can also do business with the next government. But that presents considerable difficulties for Iran.

The Islamic Republic is increasingly concerned that if Assad's regime collapses - which appears likely - it will lose contact with Syria altogether. Tehran's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups in Syria has deteriorated. The end of Assad could imperil Iran's relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as Syria acts as the bridge between the two.

Hard times for Tehran

Hard times lie ahead for Iran. The religious energy that the Islamic Republic unleashed with its revolution in 1979 could now come back to haunt it. If the civil war in Syria exacerbates religious tensions in the region, then Iran is likely to end up one of the losers. Collapse in Syria would leave just two Shiite governments in the region - Iran and Iraq. That would leave Tehran in a relatively weak position compared to its Sunni neighbors.

A protester holds a poster showing Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, right, Syria's President Bashar Assad, center, and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, as he takes part in a demonstration against the visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Lebanon, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Sept. 11, 2006.

Assad's collapse could cut Iran off from Hezbollah

If Iran wants to demonstrate strength in the region, it will not be able to base its foreign policy on religion anymore. Tehran will have to define its future relations with neighboring states in a different way. But such a shift could have a significant impact on the character of Iran's own Islamic republic at home.

As a consequence, Iran is trying to bridge the confessional divide in the Middle East, according to Steinbach. Tehran can longer influence the end game in Syria. But Steinbach believes - in a twist of historical irony - that the Islamic Republic will try to prevent a religious political backlash from spilling across Syria's borders.

Playing the religion card

Posch also believes that Iran will have to tread lightly when it comes to religion and politics. An explosion of building religious and political tension in Syria could spill over into Iran, where Sunnis constitute the second largest religious group. Iran's Shiite rulers could then face a powerful religious opposition at home, according to Posch.

Independent of whether or not the kidnapped Iranians in Syria were secret agents or just pilgrims, Tehran is playing a risky religious card in the fight against Syria's uprising. If Assad loses the power struggle, then the Islamic Republic could face a powerful Sunni neighbor that would hardly be disposed toward friendly relations.

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