The AP reports that Iran has warned Syria to ease its crackdown of dissidents protesting the Assad regime:

Syria's closest ally, Iran, warned Saturday that a power vacuum in Damascus could spark an unprecedented regional crisis while urging President Bashar Assad to listen to some of his people's "legitimate demands." Thousands of protesters, meanwhile, insisted they will defy tanks and bullets until Assad goes.

The 5-month-old uprising in Syria has left Assad with few international allies — with the vital exception of Iran, which the U.S. and other nations say is helping drive the deadly crackdown on dissent.

Saturday's comments by Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi were a subtle shift in tone toward comprise by Tehran, which encouraged the Assad regime to answer to its people while reiterating its support for its key ally. Most previous comments focused on a "foreign conspiracy" driving the unrest.

"Either in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands and governments should answer them as soon as possible," Salehi said Saturday, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

This same Iranian regime has famously been responsible for its own crackdown on its citizens, especially on the heels of the rigged 2009 presidential election. Iran, here, is not as concerned for the wellbeing of the Syrian people as it is for its own preservation.

Unrest in the Middle East--and regime change in one country--can have enormous consequences for others in the neighborhood. This statement from the Iranians seems to suggest that the mullahs are concerned that, if Assad falls, they could be next. Or, at the very least, if Assad falls, then the Iranians will loose an important ally.

The AP continues:

But Iran's support for Assad was clear.

"If a vacuum is created in the Syrian ruling system, it will have unprecedented repercussions," he said, adding that Syria has "sensitive neighbors" and that change in the country could lead to regional crisis. Syria borders five other nations and controls water supplies to Iraq, Jordan and parts of Israel.

Iran's ties with Syria go far beyond the countries' long-standing friendship in a region dominated by Arab suspicions of Tehran's aims. Syria also is Iran's 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.

There's an added bonus for the Iranians: Speaking out against the Syrians will make them look more reasonable in comparison to Assad.

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