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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

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Holding up the Syrian flag, Iranian and Syrian students attend an anti-Israeli demonstration in front of the United Nations offices in Tehran, on May 6, 2013, to condemn Israeli air strikes on targets near the Syrian capital Damascus. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran: Firmly behind the Assad regime

For both religious and geopolitical reasons, the Iranian government continues to serve as Syria's most important backer with broad domestic support.

TEHRAN — Saeed Mohammad Husseini sat behind the counter at a store selling religious CDs as he explained his support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

"I support Shias all over the world, including the Shia leader Assad," he said with a smile.

When informed that Assad is Alawite, he looked confused. The Alawites, a small but powerful minority in Syria that began as a split-off from Shia Islam, revere some of the early Shia leaders. Upon hearing that, Husseini nodded his head.

"That's good enough," he said.

Iranian leaders say they support Assad as a bulwark against Israel, the US and Sunni extremist rebels. Inside Iran, however, they rally supporters such as Husseini with appeals to defend Shia Islam against what they refer to as ‘takfiris,’ an Arabic word from the Koran that forms the basis for labeling apostates.

At its core, Iran supports the secular Assad government for geopolitical reasons. Syria allows shipment of arms and supplies to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, part of what they see as the wider regional alliance against the US and Israel.

But some Iranians perceive the battle in religious, not political terms. They see the Syria war as part of an attack on Shia throughout the region, according to Foad Izadi, assistant professor in World Studies at the University of Tehran.

Some deeply religious people see that "there are Salafis threatening to blow up the shrines," he told GlobalPost. "They don't know enough to realize that the Assad government is not a Shia government, and [it is] actually secular."

As the Syrian civil war continues into its third year with little end in sight, the political struggle has taken on an increasingly religious dimension. Opportunist leaders on both sides use age-old religious disputes to justify current atrocities.

The Sunni governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting the rebels, including extremist groups associated with Al Qaeda. The US has recently announced plans to openly arm moderate Sunni rebels, but can't guarantee where those munitions will end up. Iran, Iraq’s Shia government and Hezbollah are all backing Assad, who has used planes and missiles to attack civilians.

Iran has veered from trying to mediate the civil war in the early months to becoming an enthusiastic backer of Assad's military plans. While Iranian leaders use religion to rally the faithful, their motivations are political, economic and military.

Iran's support for Syria dates back to 1980 when Saddam Hussein's Iraq attacked Iran in what was to become a bloody, eight-year war. Syria was mortal enemies with Hussein and became the only Arab country to side with Iran in that war. After the war, Iran invested billions of dollars in Syria, including the building of auto and other factories.

Syria and Iran developed what they called a "resistance front" to the US and Israel, which also included Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas.

From the beginning, said Prof. Izadi, Iran worried that "if the Assad government fell, the replacement would have much stronger ties with US government and Israeli government ... That was the dilemma that Iran had."

The resistance front forced the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 and repelled its invasion of that country in 2006, according to Hossein Ruyvaran, a leader of the Society for Defense of Palestinian Nation, an Iranian advocacy group based in Tehran.

"Iran is the pivot of this coalition," he told the GlobalPost.

That's precisely what bothers US policymakers.

"Today, Iran is training, arming, funding, aiding and abetting the Assad regime and its atrocious crackdown on its own people," US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman told the US Senate. "Iran has made it clear that it fears losing its closest ally and will stop at no cost, borne by both the Syrian and Iranian people, to prop up the Assad regime."

While US officials publicly decry the costs borne by the Iranian people, at least so far, many Iranians appear to support their government's position on Syria.

"I'm willing to fight for Syria," said Ph.D. student Zahra Jahanbakhashian, during a random street interview. "They