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Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East by
Jubin Goodarzi, London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2006. ISBN: 1845111273. Hard
copy, 359 pages (including acronyms and abbreviations page, notes, references and
index).

Reviewed by Caleb Smith


There are few topics more significant than alliances when analyzing Middle East
politics. For thousands of years, since the ancient empires of the Egyptians, Hittites,
Assyrians, and Persians, alliances have been a common feature on the Middle Easts
political landscape (p.1). Moreover, none have left scholars more bewildered than
the enduring Syrian-Iranian nexus which can be traced back to the 1979 partnership
between the capitals Damascus and Tehran. Many analysts have been perplexed as
to how a revolutionary, pan-Islamic theocracy such as Iran could ally itself with a
secular, pan-Arab, socialist republic like Syria. With this book, Jubin Goodarzi
attempts to shed some light on that perplexity.
Jubin Goodarzis Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle
East is the first in-depth analysis conducted on the Syrian-Iranian nexus. Goodarzis
goal in this book is to provide the reader with a theory that contradicts the
prevailing view about the two nation- states alliance. He states that many
observers were quick to write it off as a short-term marriage of convenience. His
central argument is that the alliance has been essentially defensive in nature.
This argument is drawn from his theory that the alliance emerged as a response to
acts of aggression orchestrated by Iraq and Israel, in both cases with the prior
knowledge and tacit support of the US (p.3). Goodarzi also seeks to provide an
explanation for the longevity of the Tehran-Damascus partnership. He analyzes the
forces that led to the development and consolidation of the alliance during a decade
that was essentially characterized by turmoil. By doing so, Goodarzi is able to
disclose how two nation-states with numerous differences in their respective
ideologies, as well as their social and political foundations, have been able to
maintain an alliance that has now lasted for over three decades.
Goodarzis research revealed three key phases in the evolution of the Syrian-Iranian
nexus; therefore he devoted one chapter to each of these. The significance of these
phases is explained in terms of how they affected bilateral relations between the
nation-states as well as their regional implications. Goodarzi approaches this by
linking major events in the Middle East to crucial decisions made by Tehran and
Damascus.
Chapter one covers the emergence of the alliance that took place between 1979
and 1982. Although the 1979 Iranian revolution laid the framework for the alliance
to take place, Goodarzi argues that Iraq was the main catalyst in transforming the
partnership into a formal alliance. While the initial impetus for the relationship

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came from the overthrow of Irans conservative, pro Western monarchy in 1979,
Iraqs invasion of Iran in September 1980 brought Syria and Iran closer together,
with Syria providing valuable diplomatic and military aid to help Iran stave off
defeat and expel the Iraqi invaders (p.3). After the revolution, Arab-Iranian
relations in the Gulf began to increasingly deteriorate and Iraqi-Iranian relations
sank to new depths in autumn of 1979. A cycle of mutual recriminations, continuous
border clashes, incessant interference in the affairs of the other and calls to
overthrow the other regime led to the closure of Iranian consulates in Basra and
Karbala, and Iraqi consulates in Khorramshahr and Karbala (p.25). Tehran thus
began to put more emphasis on the overtures coming from Damascus. Throughout
this chapter Goodarzi continues to point out the specific events that led to Tehran
and Damascus furthering their relationship. He puts much emphasis on the takeover
of the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. In the immediate aftermath of
the embassy takeover, Syria declared its support for the Iranian action and called on
other Arab states to throw their weight behind Iran (p.25). On October 29, an official
Syrian government statement was made that supported the Iranian cause and
expressed its concern over the US naval build-up in the Indian Ocean and
Mediterranean Sea. A series of events in the inter-Arab arena, specifically the Gulf
War, gave further impetus to the need for increased contacts and collaboration
between Tehran and Damascus (p.48). While concluding the chapter, Goodarzi
states that the first Gulf War was the single most important factor in formalizing the
Tehran-Damascus axis in early 1982. Goodarzi seems to have effectively made his
case against the prevailing view, as he states Despite ethnic dissimilarities and
ideological incompatibilities, in the final analysis it was no surprise that on their
ascent to power, Ayatollah Khomeini and his inner circle cultivated close ties with
the Syrian Bathist regime (p.57). He does an effective job of weakening the
prevailing views by routinely pointing out that they are only driven by the
authoritarian and unpopular nature of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
In Chapter two, Goodarzi examines the period between 1982 and 1985. At this point
he begins to take the emphasis off of Iraq and shifts it towards Israel. He mentions
that Syria and Iran must continue to cooperate not only to respond to new
challenges in the Gulf, but in the eastern Mediterranean (Levant) as well. This phase
of the alliance begins with Israels invasion of Lebanon; the event that engaged
Syria in what became the fifth Arab-Israeli war. Chapter twos central purpose is to
address the achievements and limits of the Syrian-Iranian power. Goodarzi starts by
characterizing the phase as both the zenith of the Syrian-Iranian axis in the region
and, paradoxically, a time of lost opportunities in which the limits of its power were
demonstrated and the seeds of its decline were sown (p.59). This is where
Goodarzi begins to make connections between the events and the decisions made
in Tehran and Damascus, as well as in Baghdad and Tel Aviv. Goodarzis research on
these connections is what sets his work apart from other authors. In his analysis, he
is able to show that policymakers in Baghdad and Tel Aviv hoped that an IsraeliSyrian confrontation would diminish Syrian power in the region (p.59). A detailed

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chronology of events and an in depth analysis is given in order to show the impact
of the Lebanon War on the evolution of the alliance. Goodarzi argues that there is a
direct link between the Lebanon War and the Gulf War. He states that the events in
the Persian Gulf even affected the timing of the Israeli invasion. The Israelis
calculated that they could deflect attention in Washington and the Arab from their
operation if they made it coincide with the series of defeats the Iraqis were suffering
in the Gulf and the imminent Iranian invasion of Iraq (p.60). Goodarzi goes on to
explain how policymakers in Tehran and Damascus were able to coordinate their
policies and take up the challenge to expel Israeli forces from Lebanon. The
aftermath of the Lebanon War was a contradiction to Saddam Husseins
expectations, as the Syrian-Iranian alliance grew closer than before. The limits of
Iranian power began to show in its invasion of Iraq, or Operation Ramadan. Although
the conflict never reached a breakthrough, Irans decision to invade was considered
a milestone in regards to the alliances collaboration against Saddam Hussein.
Through the end of Chapter two, Goodarzi continues to show the limits of Irans
power. A series of events between December 1984 and March 1985 set in motion
the decline of Irans power and ability to prosecute the Gulf War successfully (p.
127). He also states that at this point the alliance had evolved into a highly
asymmetrical relationship, with Syria as the dominant partner. However, the
alliance between Egypt, Jordan and the PLO in 1984 magnified the limits of Syrian
power as well. This phase as a whole proved to be one of the most important in the
modern history of the Middle East. The events during those three years drastically
altered the politics of the region. They ushered in a new era that has left an
indelible mark on the international relations of the Middle East (p.131). Cleary this
is a testament to the relevance of Goodarzis topic and his research.
Chapter three covers the period between spring 1985 and summer 1988. This
chapter demonstrates how Syria and Iran were able to delineate the parameters of
their cooperation and forge understandings on how to perpetuate their partnership
for many years to come (p.285). Goodarzi describes this phase as the most
turbulent and problematic in the history of the Syrian-Iranian alliance (p.133). It
was marked by bilateral tensions and conflicting agendas. Syrias failure to end the
civil war in Lebanon and Irans continuous fight in the Gulf began to undermine the
position of the Tehran-Damascus partnership. Clashes of interest arose in virtually
every area in which the two nation-states had previously cooperated. Goodarzi
analyzes the conflicting policies that Damascus and Tehran began to pursue in the
Gulf region and Levant. For example, Irans support of Hezbollah put Syria in a
difficult and increasingly awkward position. With Hezbollahs rise as a political force
among Lebanons largest minority (the Shiites) at the expense of pro-Syrian Amal
movement, the two sides were increasingly at odds over Lebanons political future,
with the pro-Iranian Hezzbolah movement wanting an Islamic republic in Syrias
backyard and Amal a secular state within Syrias sphere of influence (p.133).
Goodarzi notes that throughout this entire period other Arab states, as well as the
USSR, were constantly trying to convince Assad to abandon his friendship with Iran.

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He states that Assad did have good reason to abandon the alliance and makes a list
of several challenges that Syria was facing simultaneously such as:

The need to secure Syrias eastern flank with Iraq because of the prospect of
a conflict with Israel
Syrias marginalization in Arab politics with the consolidation of the EgyptianJordanian-Iraqi axis
Irans refusal to continue oil deliveries to Syria
The dismal state of the Syrian economy (p.134)

By the summer of 1988, the partnership had become solidified. They were able to
overcome numerous conflicting agendas and policies as well as many other intraalliance tensions by recognizing the need to stabilize the situation in Lebanon.
Goodarzi also accredits the resurgence of Iraq in the late 80s and the withdrawal of
Soviet support for Syria to the renewal of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. In this chapter
Goodarzi also reveals the flawed conclusions of those who argued that the alliance
was a marriage of convenience. He does this by examining how the bilateral ties
between Syria and Iran evolved during this period. He finally provides the reader
with a better description of why the alliance developed rather than it was
defensive in nature. Goodarzi states: They saw a unique role for themselves in
the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign
policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term,
and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region (p.135).
The fourth chapter is very concise compared to the previous three. Goodarzi
continues to analyze the Syrian-Iranian alliance as it enters into the 21 st century.
From 1988-1991, the alliance was essentially devoted to the containment of
Saddam Hussein. Goodarzi notes that many observers predicted the imminent
demise of the alliance during this two-year period. His response to that criticism is
that incessant speculations that the days of the Syrian-Iranian nexus were
numbered were simply unfounded. In this last chapter Goodarzi finally answers
what is arguably the most perplexing question to this research topic. He provides
the reader with an explanation for the longevity of the Syrian-Iranian alliance; a task
that many scholars have not attempted. Many analysts had failed to recognize that
the two allies continual consultations and ability to compromise on key issues, build
mutual trust and maintain cooperative links during the troubled years of 1985-88
had consolidated the alliance (p.286). He goes on to explain that Syria and Irans
mutual ability over time to assess the evolving regional situation, to recognize the
limits of their power and to set feasible goals is what provided the partnership with
stability. Goodarzi then furthers his answer with another explanation. Second, the
environment immediately after the first Gulf War was such that they needed to
preserve their ties to boost their regional positions and alleviate their security
concerns (p.286). Once Iraq attacked Kuwait, Syria and Iran were able to reconcile
their differences with Arab and Western governments. Goodarzi states that the US

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also played a pivotal role in reinforcing the alliance in the 21 st century. Overall,
Washingtons pro-Israeli stance in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, its support for the
emergence of a Turkish-Israeli alliance after 1996 to isolate Iran and cow Syria into
submission, and its willingness to exploit Iran-Gulf Arab differences to justify military
presence and huge arms sales to its regional allies reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian
cooperation in the period after the cold war (p.293).
Jubin Goodarzis analysis of the Syrian-Iranian nexus is certainly the most informed
yet. The book is full of details and historical events, almost to the point where it
becomes overwhelming. Still there is not a single one of Goodarzis points that he
does not thoroughly explain through research and analysis. Although numerous
authors have covered the alliance, none trace in detail the origins and development
of the strategic partnership between Damascus and Tehran. However, inaccessibility
to primary sources and current government officials in Damascus and Tehran keep
Goodarzi from providing a completely accurate picture of the alliance during the
earlier years. This was especially noticeable due to the repetitiveness he used when
describing the nature of the alliance. I would not recommend this book to just any
political science major. Some background in Middle East politics is needed in order
to understand many of the terms. The acronyms and abbreviations page seemed a
bit tedious and most readers will probably find themselves referring to it regularly in
order to keep up with the text. Even with these critiques, Syria and Iran: Diplomatic
Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East is still an extremely well written book
and Goodarzis in depth study makes it unique to all the other books dealing with
the Syrian-Iranian nexus.