Iran calls on Damascus allies to talk to protesters

Iran traditionally likes to put its money on more than one player in any confrontation in which it is involved outside its borders.

This makes it less surprising that it is now distancing itself from the Syrian government, to which it has been allied for 30 years, calling on Damascus to talk to protesters.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gently criticised Syria's effort to crush the protests by force and piously states "a military solution is never the right solution". Iran's alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist regime is crucial to Iran in maintaining its status as a regional power.

The predominant role in the Syrian leadership of the minority Alawite Shia sect is also important to Iran, as the leading Shia state, given the escalating Shia-Sunni conflict in the region. East of Egypt, the Arab Spring has taken a sectarian form, with majority Sunni battling ruling Alawites in Syria and minority Sunni ruthlessly suppressing the Shia majority in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, as the most influential Sunni state, has had a hostile view of Shia, whom it sees as heretics and Iranian pawns, in Iraq, the Gulf, Yemen and its own Eastern Province.

Iran has little choice but to do everything it can to support the Syrian government with money and arms. But it is also probably dismayed at the crudity of the Syrian authorities' reliance on torture and shootings to curb protesters. Its own effective suppression of the Green Movement in Iran since 2009 showed a more careful balance, using enough force to frighten, but not so much it creates hundreds of martyrs.

Not all the news has been bad for the Iranians. The Arab Spring saw the end to its old enemy President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and any successor is likely to be more sympathetic to Iran. Iranian power has been growing in the Gulf since the US overthrew Saddam Hussein, who was viscerally anti-Iranian.

Since the election of 2005, Iraqi governments have been dominated by parties drawn from the majority Shia sect, and as US troops depart, Iran's influence grows in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made friendly gestures towards President Assad as he does not want him to be replaced by a Sunni regime sympathetic to Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

Iran's enemies are jubilant it might lose in Syria a vital regional ally. Probably they rejoice too soon. Iran will do what it can to prop up the Assad regime, but it is taking such steps as it can to reach an accommodation with any successor.

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