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Syria and Iran: A Look at the Facts

Katherine Gockel
February 2007

Over the past six to seven months, it seems that two nations have been “married” together in almost every major policy discussion on the Middle East. Whether it is the response to the election of Hamas in Palestine, the Israeli-Hizbollah conflict in Lebanon, the Iraq Study Group Report or President Bush’s recent speeches, Syria and Iran are linked — often in the same sentence.

Yet when looking at some basic facts found in documents on the U.S. State Department Web site, one has to ask if the continued association of these two countries is actually driving together two nations that may have less in common than most of us realize.

Political structure. Iran is an Islamic republic. A theocracy. It has a president and his power is often discussed, but most experts agree that the real power still lies with Supreme Leader Ali Kha-menei. The political power structure in Iran is considered murky.

Syria, on the other hand, is officially a republic but is actually a secular autocracy. Its current leader, Bashar al-Assad, took over from his father, Hafez al-Assad, continuing the Ba’ath Party regime. Everyone knows who is in power, even if some feel the regime is weaker than it was in the past.

Religion. The predominant religion in each country is Islam. But Iran’s estimated population of 69 million is 89 percent Shia and 9 percent Sunni. Syria’s estimated population of 18.6 million is 74 percent Sunni followed by Alawis (12 percent), Christians (10 percent) and Druze (3 percent). Syria’s Shia population is not broken out as a percentage.

Ethnicity and language. Iran is 51 percent Persian and only 3 percent Arab. Its predominant language is Persian. Syria is 90 percent Arab and the official language is Arabic. Thus, Iran is ethnically dissimilar to its surrounding Arab neighbors. Syria is an Arab state and takes that fact very seriously.

Trade and oil. Iran’s exports are $55.4 billion. Petroleum makes up 80 percent of its exports and Iran is a member of OPEC. Three of its four largest export partners are in Asia — Japan (16.9 percent), China (11.2 percent) and South Korea (5.8 percent). Its major import partners are Germany (13.7 percent), the United Arab Emirates (8.3 percent), China (8.2 percent), Italy (7 percent) and France (6.2 percent).

In contrast, Syria’s exports are estimated at $6.8 billion, much smaller than Iran’s. Petroleum is not broken out in the export statistics and Syria is not in OPEC. Its major export markets are the European Union, Arab countries, the United States and many others. Major suppliers are Germany, Turkey, Italy, France, the United States and Japan.

Nuclear energy programs. Iran is pursuing one that is drawing scrutiny by the United Nations National Security Council. Syria is not known to be pursuing a nuclear energy program.

Each country has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government — Iran in January 1984 and Syria in December 1979. However, the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsor of Terror Overview provides insights into differences in the behavior of the two countries when it comes to key U.S. policies.

According to the overview, “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism;” it points out Iran’s direct assistance in the “planning and support” of terrorist activities. This includes urging groups, including those with key members in Syria and Lebanon, “to use terrorism in pursuit of their goals.”

The overview also states unwillingness on the part of Iran to identify and bring to justice senior members of al-Qaida.

This same document raises the issue of Syria’s continued support of Hizbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Yet it goes on to mention Syria’s past cooperation with the United States “against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations and individuals.” The overview states that Syria ended its intelligence cooperation due to U.S. complaints about its “inadequate level” of assistance to end the flow of money and fighters into Iraq. But the next paragraph mentions that Syria “made efforts to limit the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq.”

Diplomatic relations. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. There is neither a U.S. Embassy in Iran nor an Iranian Embassy in the United States. In contrast, there is a Syrian Embassy in Washington and a U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

These facts do not deny that these two countries are conducting activities that affect the peace and stability of the region. There is also considerable evidence that both are aiding groups that have been designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

But these facts also provide insights as to how U.S. foreign policy might uncouple these two countries by offering different avenues for engagement. Multilateral engagement with the aid of U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East seems feasible, especially in the case of Syria.

Engagement might also minimize the areas that these two countries have in common, including their support of Palestinian terrorist groups. Now wouldn’t that really be something worth discussing?

Katherine Gockel is program officer at The Stanley Foundation, Muscatine, Iowa.
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