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Syria unrest presents dilemma for Iran

Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protester, holds Assad's poster as he paints the Syrian flag on his chest with Arabic words "Syria Assad," during a demonstration, in Damascus, Syria, on Friday March 25, 2011. AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The demonstrations in Syria are confronting Iran with an exquisite dilemma, one that scrambles the Iranians' strategic game board and all the pieces on it. Among the Arab states, Syria, and to some extent Lebanon, stands alone as an ally of Iran. Anything that happens in Syria is watched closely by Tehran for that reason. Syria has provided entree to the Iranians into a region that is normally suspicious of - if not hostile to - Persians, and Shia Persians at that.

You will recall that the Iranians sent warships through the Suez Canal shortly after the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak this winter. It was the first time Iranian warships had traversed the canal since the revolution in 1979. A clear provocation to Israel and a test of the new Egyptian leadership, it was part of an Iranian plan to establish an abiding military presence on the Mediterranean Sea at the Syrian port of Latakia. And punctually, we learned a freighter which departed Latakia for Egypt was carrying weaponry destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. We know this because the Israelis intercepted the ship before it could make its delivery.

Obviously a destabilized Syria potentially throws the Iranian military base idea out the window. A destabilized Syria has big implications for Lebanon and for Hezbollah. Syria has been the Lebanese overlord for decades and Hezbollah has been Iran's meddlesome pet. Today we learn, for example, that Hezbollah has been offering support to the Shia in Bahrain who are rebelling against their Sunni king. I'm sure that is with Iran's blessing.

As I indicated above, Iran has also been helpful to Hamas, even though Hamas is a Sunni Muslim movement. All of those relationships could be in jeopardy soon. And that has broad, potentially very positive, implications for Israel, whose prime minister is in Moscow today arguing for a tougher Russian stand on Iran's nuclear ambitions. And in the zero sum game of the Middle East, what's good for Israel is bad for Syria and Iran.

That's why you are seeing Bashar Assad shooting at his own people now. Sure he has promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers, but his military action suggests he knows the protesters will not be bought off by such blandishments.

Force is a trick he learned from his father, Hafez. We have been told that Bashar is much more westernized (he speaks perfect English, for example), more civilized than his father. What is happening now in Daraa and elsewhere suggests otherwise. He is fighting the protests the only way he knows.

But this puts Iran in a ridiculous position. On the one hand, the mullahs and Ahmadinejad have been praising the protests in the Middle East, characterizing them as a rejection of western toadies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. They can't make that argument - as dubious as it is - about Syria.


CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds was stationed in the Middle East for nine years.