The Syrian crisis is well nigh the biggest blow to the current Iranian regime's prestige since it was established in 1979. It is now safe to argue that Iran is squandering the soft power it has been exercising among the various Muslim groups around the globe.
Whether Shiite or Sunni, many Muslims have valued the Iranian model as a highly significant one. Its domestic problems and weaknesses notwithstanding, Iran has been appreciated as the alternative Muslim state model. Even those who are critical of the Iranian model have endorsed Iran's criticism of the West. No matter how differently Muslims have approached the Iranian regime, the crux of the matter has always been Tehran's elevated moral stature in Muslim politics. Iran's moral discourse on global politics has appealed to Muslims everywhere, so much so that mainstream anti-Iranian Muslims in other countries have trodden very carefully when speaking of Iran.
However, Iran's silence on the killing of civilians in Syria cannot but come across as a dramatic turning point in regional history. Yesterday, the Syrian regime killed more than 300 civilians. Russia and China have vetoed a recent UN Security Council draft resolution that called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. This is not surprising because for these two states, Syria's civil war has become their proxy war against the US-led Western states. Russia and China believe that the Western strategy of overthrowing the Assad regime would see a huge loss of their interests in the Middle East. Like these and many other states, Iran has its own perspective on Syria. This is normal. Just as for Turkey, the US or Russia, it is legitimate for Iran to formulate and practice a national strategy regarding Syria. However, strategic pragmatism has moral boundaries: No country should remain silent while the Assad regime is killing civilians on a daily basis.
As I noted above, all states have their national strategies. One can easily criticize each of them on moral grounds. However, there is a major factor that differentiates Iran from countries like Russia and China: The Muslim world has no expectations from China or Russia with regard to the Syrian crisis. Thus, no matter how amorally pragmatic it is, neither the Russian nor the Chinese agenda on Syria can frustrate the Muslim people. The Syrian crisis is firstly an internal Muslim-world problem. It is the other Muslim states' reactions that are of primary importance in the global Muslim community. Therefore, the silence from Tehran on the killings of civilians in Syria frustrates all Muslims who expect a decisive moral interdiction from Iran when a state is killing its Muslim citizens.
In fact, a recent survey by IBOPE Zogby International, a premiere public opinion firm and polling agency, supports my argument. According to the agency, Iran's image in many major Arab states such as Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan has become increasingly negative since 2006. But this trend should be analyzed in more detail. Alongside the increasingly negative public opinion on Iran, there is, more critically, a transformation ongoing in the large, organized conservative Muslim groups. Influential Islamic groups, having observed Iran's ultra-pragmatic stance on the killings of civilians in Syria, are now revisiting their traditional positive inclinations towards Iran. Why? The answer is very simple: No religious group can take a positive stance on Iran while Tehran fails to adequately condemn the killing of Muslims on a daily basis.
Iran certainly has the right to formulate its national strategy on regional issues. Moreover, many of the Iranian theses on the future of Syria cannot be said to be false. Meanwhile, one can find concrete reasons for criticizing the intra-Muslim positions of other Muslim states, including Turkey's. But none of these considerations can hide the fact that Iran has a historical responsibility to be active in defusing the Syrian crisis. There is a deadlock now, and Iran is among the few countries that can push this case towards a humane and local resolution. If Tehran fails to try, it will tear a serious hole in the fabric of other Muslims' alignment with the country.