By Robin Pomeroy
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Beset by civil unrest at home and lambasted by the West and his Arab neighbors for his violent crackdown on dissent, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad can count on one firm ally: Iran.
In a country that knows a thing or two about diplomatic isolation, Iran's politicians and media describe the Damascus government as an outpost of resistance to Israel that has been set upon by Washington and its lackeys in the region.
While several Gulf Arab countries have withdrawn their ambassadors in protest at the violence, and countries once close to Damascus, Russia and Turkey, have turned harshly critical, Iran is the only big country still backing Syria, arguing anything else would spell disaster.
"In regard to Syria we are confronted with two choices. The first is for us to place Syria in the mouth of a wolf named America and change conditions in a way that NATO would attack Syria," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs committee.
"That would mean we would have a tragedy added to our other tragedies in the world of Islam."
"The second choice would be for us to contribute to the termination of the clashes in Syria," Boroujerdi said. "The interests of the Muslim people command that we mobilize ourselves to support Syria as a center of Palestinian resistance."
A senior cleric pressed the message home. "It is the duty of all Muslims to help stabilize Syria against the destructive plots of America and Israel," said Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi.
Iran also used troops to put down mass protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election. Iranian leaders also described those demonstrations as a Western plot.
ISLAMIC, POPULAR AND ANTI-AMERICAN
Iran had hoped the Arab Spring, something Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dubbed the "Islamic Awakening," would spell the end of U.S.-backed autocracies and usher in an era of Muslim unity to face-down the West and Israel.
Khamenei used the June anniversary of the death of Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to tell the nation: "Our stance is clear: wherever a movement is Islamic, popular and anti-American, we support it."
Without mentioning Syria by name, he continued: "If somewhere a movement is provoked by America and Zionists, we will not support it. Wherever America and the Zionists enter the scene to topple a regime and occupy a country, we are on the opposite side."
Mohammad Marandi, an associate professor at the University of Tehran, said Iran's support for Syria was based on a shared interest in helping resistance to Israel -- both countries support Hamas and Hezbollah -- and that continuing to back Assad while he reforms Syria's one-party system was imperative.
"Iran has always believed that Syria should not be weakened, because the Israeli regime will certainly take advantage of any weakness," Marandi told Reuters.
"In any case, real reforms can only be carried out in a peaceful environment. The Western and pro-Western Arab media campaign against Syria is intended to destabilize the country and to prevent Syria from implementing reforms that will keep Syria strong and an anti-Israeli government in power."
He played down media reports of Iran increasing aid to Syria. "I have not heard of any extraordinary aid delivery, except in the Western media or media outlets owned by despotic Arab regimes."
While civil unrest in Syria has not gone unreported in Iran, it has received far less attention than uprisings in other parts of the region, particularly Bahrain where Saudi Arabia helped a Sunni monarchy put down protests led by majority Shi'ites.
In recent days, as Western media, though banned from working in Syria, have reported a growing death toll, Iranian television has focused more attention on unrest in Britain that some Iranian journalists have described as a "civil war."
With Gulf Arab countries turning against Assad, and Turkey, a bridge between the Middle East and the West, taking a tougher stance, Iranian newspapers reflect Tehran's growing isolation.
After distancing his country from Israel and moving closer to the Muslim world since coming to power in 2003, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised some in Iran with his volte face. "In Syria, the state is pointing guns at its own people ... Turkey's message to Assad is very clear: stop all kinds of violence and bloodshed."
The hardline Qods daily said Turkey, instead of showing support for Syria and Iran, had capitulated to U.S. pressure.
"If Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government does not change its political behavior toward Syria, Turkey will be the main loser of the Syrian events if Damascus gets out of the current crisis," it wrote in a recent editorial.
The papers reserved their harshest words for Iran's Gulf Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, whose relations with the mostly non-Arab Iran have become increasingly strained in recent months.
"Stabbing each other's backs has now become a custom among Arab countries, like the way they previously betrayed Palestine, Libya, Iraq and Sudan. The current betrayal of Syria should come as no surprise," Siyasat-e Ruz daily said in an editorial.
"They are still under this illusion that convergence with America can help them preserve their establishment and restore their lost status in the region," the conservative paper said. They have turned into puppets for the goals of the West."
Reformist daily Arman said Saudi Arabia and Bahrain appeared to be drawing the battle lines for a future regional conflict.
"They want to psychologically prepare the atmosphere so that if there is a conflict with Syria and Iran supports it they are standing on the opposite side and against Iran," Arman said.
"All the countries that want to settle a score with Iran would be happy if Iran entered such a conflict and then, in the name of the international community, they would harm Iran."
The paper noted the urgent need for Assad to make good on his promised political reforms but with a death toll there which it put at 2,000, "it seems late for Bashar al-Assad to get out of this critical situation."
The reformist daily concluded that it might soon be time for Tehran to rethink its staunch support for Assad.
"If the Syria situation continues then it's time for Iran to think about its long term interests," it concluded, saying unconditional support for Assad might leave Iran supporting a government "that has been thrown out of power ... That can have no benefits for itself or Iran."
(Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri and Ramin Mostafavi)