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Analysis: Smiles in Damascus and Tehran

Council on Foreign Relations

June 21, 2007
Prepared by: Lionel Beehner

Syria and Iran seem like unnatural allies. Syria is a predominantly Sunni state run by Alawites, a secular Baathist offshoot; Iran is a mainly Shiite state, run by religious mullahs. Despite this ideological paradox, the two countries’ “special relationship,” which stretches back to the 1970s, has only strengthened since the invasion of Iraq, the U.S.-led undermining of Syrian control of Lebanon, and the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an anti-U.S. hardliner.

Yet then, as now, notes W. Abbas Samii of the Center for Naval Analyses in the Mideast Monitor, the leadership in Damascus “viewed cooperation with Iran as a means to an end, not an end itself.” Isolated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (believed by Western officials to be the work of Syrian agents), Damascus increasingly glommed onto Tehran, which reciprocated its solidarity. Both oppose U.S. interests in the region (its occupation of Iraq, support for Israel, and push for tougher sanctions against Iran). Syria became a conduit through which the Islamic Republic funneled arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. In Iraq, Syria has allowed its border to be crossed with ease by Sunni insurgents, while Iran has backed Shiite militias. Despite the divergent political aims of these groups, both advocate the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Iran is seeking a stronger foothold in the Middle East, and as Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma points out in this interview with Bernard Gwertzman, “Iran’s reach into the Arab world is through Syria.” The rest of the Arab world—and specifically Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan—is worried by what it perceives as an encroachment of Iranian influence in the region—the so-called Shiite crescent.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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