When Syria's president visited Iran late last year, he received a heroes' medal and spoke about unbreakable bonds on national television.
Now, a nervous leadership in Iran has imposed a media blackout on Bashar Assad's struggle against a swelling Syrian uprising and Tehran faces the unsettling prospect of losing its most stalwart ally in the region.
For Iran, its ties with Syria represent far more than just a rare friend in a region dominated by Arab suspicions of Tehran's aims. Syria is Iran's great enabler: a conduit for aid to powerful anti-Israel proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Should Assad's regime fall, it could rob Iran of a loyal Arab partner in a region profoundly realigned by uprisings demanding more freedom and democracy.
“Iran and Syria represent the anti-US axis in the region. In that respect, Iran wants to ensure that Syria remains an ally," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The problem is that Iran's foreign policy has become quite inconsistent."
Iran may still have other options. It has ties with Iraq's Shiite-led government, growing bonds with Turkey and Egypt.