Which countries are Syria's closest allies?


Azadeh Zamirirad

Dr. Azadeh Zamirirad is a political scientist and Iran expert at the Science and Politics Foundation. She is deputy head of the research group "Near / Middle East and Africa". Her book "Iran's Atomic Discourse: A Subsystemic Analysis of Foreign Policy Preferences in Iranian Nuclear Diplomacy (2003-2015)" was published by Ergon-Verlag.

Iran has been able to use the collapse of Iraq and the aftermath of the Arab Spring to significantly expand its influence in the region. Tehran is driven by three main interests, says Iran expert Azadeh Zamirirad. She also outlines Iran's regional militia network.

Iran has a large inventory of ballistic missiles. The regime was also able to expand its cyber activities. Above all, however, it has built up an effective militia network in the region. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979, the region of the Near and Middle East has been the focus of Iranian foreign policy. Since the US intervention in neighboring Iraq in 2003, the country has experienced rapid geopolitical growth. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein not only deposed a political opponent who had waged a devastating war against Iran for more than eight years. For the first time, access to the Levant became free, the countries along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Above all, however, Tehran benefited from the so-called Arab Spring 2010/2011. With him, a regional order disintegrated that Iran had long cherished. But while the Islamic Republic rose geopolitically, its threat perceptions remained unchanged. Iran still sees itself as a state under siege that is not only surrounded by regional rivals, but also threatened by permanent attempts at overthrow by external actors.

Regional political interests

Iran's regional policy is guided by ideological, geopolitical and security interests. The ideological character this policy is expressed in many ways. On the one hand, the Islamic Republic sees itself as the protective power of oppressed Muslims and by no means only the Shiites. On the other hand, it sees itself as a revolutionary resistance power that rebels against hegemonicism, colonialism and occupation. Resistance is primarily directed at US troops in the region and the Israeli state. The non-recognition of Israel is a constant in the regional policy of the Islamic Republic, which sees itself as decidedly anti-Zionist.

Geopolitical Iran aims to expand its room for maneuver vis-à-vis rivals such as Saudi Arabia. Tehran competes with Riyadh not only for supremacy in the Persian Gulf, but also for leadership in the Islamic world. The rivalry is also reflected in regional trouble spots, for example in Syria and Yemen. This makes it more difficult to resolve conflicts, which are exacerbated along confessional dividing lines. In contrast, relations with the regional power Turkey are characterized by pragmatism. Ankara and Tehran not only maintain good economic relations, they also share concerns about Kurdish secession efforts in their own countries and cooperate in Syria within the framework of the so-called Astana format, to which Russia also belongs. At the same time, Tehran is trying to prevent Turkey from gaining influence militarily and politically in Iran's immediate neighborhood, for example in Iraq. Above all, Iran is betting on limiting the role of the USA and Israel in the region. The end of a US military presence in the Middle East is one of the long-term goals of Iranian regional policy.

But this is also to a considerable extent a result security policy Considerations. In the event of a direct military conflict, Iran would be clearly inferior to other regional actors. The Iranian air force, but also combat vehicles and weapon systems, are largely out of date. In addition, unlike its neighbors on the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Republic cannot provide any security guarantees from external actors. Tehran has a tactical alliance with Moscow, which is reflected in the military alliance in Syria. Nevertheless, Iran will not receive any Russian assistance in the event of war. This would undermine Moscow's good relations with other major regional powers such as Saudi Arabia or Israel. Tehran is therefore guided by the motive that the country must primarily defend its security interests itself and beyond its borders. The concept of deterrence-based "forward-looking defense" is an integral part of Iran's security doctrine. The fact that engagement in the region often goes beyond measures that could be interpreted as preventive is an expression of the ideological and geopolitical interests that still have a firm place in Iran's regional policy.

Tehran's cost-effective approach to asymmetric warfare

Iran has compensated for its limited conventional capacity in a number of ways. Among other things, Tehran has pushed ahead with its missile program and, according to some estimates, now has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the entire region. In addition, Iran has succeeded in significantly expanding its cyber capacities and building a powerful network of non-state actors. Tehran's regional policy decisions are formally made in the country's Supreme National Security Council. This includes the president, representatives of the revolutionary leader, and the commanders of all armed forces. The Quds (= Jerusalem) brigades take over the operative business. These special units, which belong to the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), are responsible for intelligence and military operations outside of Iranian territory. On the one hand, you are involved in fighting yourself, for example in Syria. On the other hand, they provide financial and logistical support for their allies, recruit fighters and supply weapons.

The Lebanese Hezbollah (Party of God) is one of Iran's most important non-state allies in the region. The militant group is also a political movement as well as a party. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

  • in the Iraq Tehran supports Shiite militias under the umbrella of the so-called popular mobilization units, including the Kata'ib Hezbollah and the Badr organization, one of the most influential political actors in the country. In this way, Iran secures far-reaching military and political influence, which is intended to prevent the neighboring state from becoming a military threat to its own country again. At the same time, by creating its own structures in the neighboring country, Tehran is inevitably helping to prevent Iraq from stabilizing.
  • In the occupied Palestinian territories Iran provides support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, among other things. In addition, Tehran also supports the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), whose headquarters are in Damascus. Hamas and PIJ are classified as terrorist organizations by the EU. In contrast, Tehran regards them as legitimate "resistance fighters". They represent the Sunni part of a predominantly Shiite Iranian "Axis of Resistance" that sees itself primarily as an anti-Western and anti-Israeli front in the region. It also includes Shiite militias from Iraq, the Syrian government and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
  • Hezbollah im Lebanon is Iran's most important ally at the non-state level. Hezbollah is not only an influential actor in Lebanon through its military arm. Together with allied parties, it is currently the strongest political force in the Lebanese parliament. However, Iran's influence on Lebanese politics is extremely limited. Lebanon serves Iran primarily as an essential military front against Israel.
  • In Syria Tehran relies on maintaining the Assad regime, Iran's only strategic partner at the state level. Without this, Tehran's direct access to Hezbollah would be at risk. From the perspective of the Iranian security apparatus, engagement in Syria is therefore existential in terms of security policy. The military operation has also opened up new options for Tehran, including the establishment of a transit corridor that extends from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and the establishment of another front against Israel.
  • Iran's relationship with the Houthis is different Yemen over which Tehran has only limited influence. The support of the rebels, who have little in common ideologically and religiously with the Islamic Republic, is primarily due to Tehran's rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis offer Iran the opportunity to generate significant costs for the Saudi Kingdom with little effort, which has been active in Yemen since its military intervention in 2015.
Iran's approach to asymmetric combat is not only based on decades of experience, but is also cost-effective. The country has far fewer financial resources at its disposal than, for example, Saudi Arabia, whose annual military spending is estimated to be five times as high. Nonetheless, Tehran has succeeded in significantly expanding its regional policy room for maneuver. The U.S. Department of State estimates that Iran supported its non-state allies in the region with a total of $ 16 billion between 2012 and 2018. This equates to about two to three billion US dollars a year. This enables Tehran to generate high political, economic and military costs for other countries using comparatively few resources.


Today, the Islamic Republic is an essential regional power in the Near and Middle East. However, in numerous states Iran is also perceived as an occupying power that would fuel religious differences and further destabilize the region. Iranian regional policy has also been criticized at home, although for many Iranians it plays a subordinate role compared to domestic political issues. Nevertheless, it has become an integral part of slogans critical of the system, with which the Iranian leadership is called on to stop financial support for regional actors and instead give it to their own people.

From the point of view of the Iranian security apparatus, on the other hand, regional political commitment is indispensable. Tehran's perception of an existential threat has also increased significantly since the US announced in May 2018 that it no longer wanted to adhere to the nuclear agreement with Iran. Since May 2019, Tehran has been countering the US "policy of maximum pressure" by escalating its own steps in the Persian Gulf. This shows the usefulness of being able to resolve conflicts through non-state allies. Because attacks can only be traced back indirectly to Iran. Tehran will continue to use its regional network for the foreseeable future.

The killing of the commander of the Jerusalem Brigades, Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a targeted US attack in January 2020, does not herald a fundamental realignment of Iranian regional policy. For one thing, Tehran's connections to non-state actors are by no means based on individuals. Many contacts go back to the 1980s and are characterized by close economic, political, military and, in many cases, family ties. On the other hand, given the increased risk of armed conflict with the USA, Tehran will not do without its most powerful security policy instruments. This means that the risk of a military escalation remains high for the foreseeable future. Due to the Iranian capacity to act through allies, this could cover large parts of the region. The conflict between Tehran and Washington is therefore also of concern to Iran's neighbors. But the tense situation also offers opportunities, as it has increased the urgency for de-escalation steps. In the best case scenario, for the first time in years, this could pave the way for an overdue regional security dialogue that focuses on the security interests of all regional actors.