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Iran’s Presence in Syria: Is It There for the Long Haul?

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Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.”

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria. It can do so by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario.

Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.” The two sides once again referred to Iran’s status as “invited advisors” during Minister of Defence of Iran Amir Hatami’s visit to Syria on Saturday August 25, 2018.

The declared goals of Brigadier General Hatami’s visit were to develop cooperation in the new circumstances and discuss Syria’s progressing to a post-war stage. The agenda included both military and economic aspects, since discussions focused on Iranian contractors rebuilding Syria. Iran’s military attaché in Damascus, Brigadier General Abolqassem Alinejad, said that once the Syrian government takes control of the entire country, Syria–Iran relations will only become stronger.

The military and economic aspects of these relations are largely interconnected, since both are intended to solidify Iran’s positions in Syria, preserving Iran’s outpost in its confrontation with Israel and boosting its regional influence.

The Military and Political Agenda

Israel has repeatedly expressed its concerns about Iran’s military presence in Syria, at times rather forcefully, by striking targets that presumably belonged to Iran. The United States has also spoken about the need to liberate Syria – not so much from terrorists as from Iranian forces. For instance, National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton noted recently that this issue is a priority for the United States, and he has repeatedly discussed it with his Russian counterparts. However, Russia has made it clear that it would be impossible to pressure Iran on that account. The greatest compromise was achieved in early August, when Iran agreed to withdraw its forces 85 kilometres from Israel’s border. Still, Iranian analysts hastened to remark that those actions only played into the hand of Iran’s strategy in Syria.

Noting the fact that Syria had been liberated from terrorists and that the government would soon take control of the north-western governorate of Idlib, Hatami called the bilateral relations strategically invulnerable to third parties. In turn, Minister of Defence of Syria Ali Ayyoub said that without the help of its “Iranian friends,” Damascus would not have held out against the terrorists. He also noted that Iran’s place of honour on the map of Syria’s foreign political relations cannot be compared to the role of “occupants,” “marauders” or “warmongers,” thus confirming Hatami’s words that enemies would fail in their attempts to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria. The negotiations resulted in the signing of a military cooperation agreement that consolidates previous arrangements. Alinejad said that Iran’s military would help Syria clear the mine fields remaining from the war and restore the production of military equipment. Negotiations were also held on supplying certain weapons, for instance, Iran’s Kosar fighter aircraft that is, in essence, a copy of the U.S. Northrop F-5 fighter.

Accompanied by the Syrian military command, Hatami visited the border zones, Aleppo and places where “shrine defenders” are deployed (this term is used to denote Iranian military units deployed in Syria since, officially, they only help protect Shi’ite Muslim shrines). Hatami specifically noted the important role of “shrine defenders” in maintaining peace and security in the region, which in essence is another confirmation of their broader functions. Since the start of the war, Iran has, according to various sources, sent thousands of soldiers and pieces of military equipment to Syria, as well as and tens of thousands of mobilized groups from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the seven years of civil war, about 1000 Iranians have been killed, including senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials. As a result, Tehran has become more open about its casualties and the justification of Iran’s presence in the combat zones.

The reinstatement of sanctions by the United States, as well as the introduction of new restrictions, following President Trump’s decision to renege on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme is also partially linked to Iran’s participation in local conflicts, since charges against Tehran include participation in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. Iran will hardly succeed in bringing Trump back to the JCPOA in the foreseeable future, and it is certainly not ready to sacrifice its few military and strategic allies for that purpose, which makes preserving its influence in Syria virtually a matter of principle.

The military cooperation agreement that Amir Hatami signed with his Syrian counterpart Ali Ayyoub and President Bashar al-Assad essentially enshrines Iran’s long-term presence in Syria. Bolstering the “resistance axis” was also mentioned at negotiations, which apparently refers to far-reaching plans to spread joint influence in the region. Iranian officials also noted that the parties had agreed on the presence of pro-Iran forces in Syria to aid the government, although official statements still called them “advisors.”

Iran’s far-reaching plans to consolidate its presence in Syria by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario. For instance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah conducted operations during the war in south-western Syria, despite Russia’s objections. In 2017, The Economist wrote that Hezbollah’s potential had grown by 17 times over the last decade, and Iran has had a huge hand in this. If Tehran does succeed in preserving its presence in Syria, which subsequently strengthen the presence of Hezbollah and other loyal groups there, the end of the civil war will not eliminate another permanent hot bed of tensions on Israel’s border. Therefore, there will be no short-term settlement of the situation even after the government forces take control of Idlib.

Iran’s Economic Interests

During his visit, Hatami also discussed the post-war reconstruction of Syria with his Syrian colleagues. This is part of the economic aspect of Iran’s motivations, even though it is closely linked with the country’s military and political plans. The issue of rebuilding Syria keeps cropping up on the international agenda, but, due to clashing political interests, a clear picture has not emerged. For instance, European investors are not prepared to invest in Syria as long as pro-Iranian forces or Iran’s “advisors” are present there. Given Iran’s current economic situation and the political crisis brewing in the country, it does not have enough resources to rebuild an entire war-torn country. However, the situation around the JCPOA and the need to ensure Iran’s own interests in the region prompt Tehran to move along the path of agreements even without sufficient means to do it.

Thus, Tehran’s principal economic interest in Syria at present is to remove the need to finance the war, which is taking resources away from settling Iran’s domestic economic situation.

Reuters and other media outlets have written that, Iran opened Syria a line of credit in 2013 worth a total of $5.6 billion, most of which went on Iran’s oil deliveries. The parties also began setting up banking relations, which was the subject of negotiations between representatives of the central banks of Iran and Syria in June 2017.

During Hatami’s latest visit, he said that Iran’s private businesses were ready to participate in rebuilding Syria. At the same time, at the end of last year, Major General Ali Jafari, the Chief Commander of the IRGC, said that, since the situation in Syria is not yet entirely safe, the IRGC forces, and not private companies, had charged with rebuilding the country. Most likely, against the background of sporadic protests arising in various regions of Iran since 2017 demanding, among other things that financing expensive foreign military campaigns be stopped, the decision was made to depict Iran’s participation as an opportunity for private companies to make money on large contracts. Similarly, private businesses could create a more positive international image. In essence, Syrian contracts will go to companies with ties to the government or specifically to the IRGC.

In fact, more serious discussions of economic agreements took place about a week before Hatami’s visit. During a visit to Syria in August 2018, an Iranian delegation signed agreements assigning Iranian companies a major role in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure. Thus, the delegation led by Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development Amir Amini, accompanied by Abbas Akhoundi, Head of the Iran–Syria Commission on Economic Matters, held a series of meetings with various agencies, including the ministers of economy and housing. The discussions focused, in particular, on customs and banking cooperation that could help expand trade relations between the two countries. The agenda featured, among other items, industrial and technological cooperation, collaboration in telecommunications, establishing joint small and medium-sized enterprises, rebuilding the water supply system and power supply utilities and restoring the infrastructure in general. Teymour Bashirgonbadi, International Affairs Director at the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, said that priority is given to the work of the bilateral commission at the level of the Prime Minister of Syria and the First Vice President of Iran.

During the negotiations, Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade of Syria Samer al-Khalil spoke about the need to use national currencies in mutual payments due to the United States reinstating sanctions against Iran. The Minister mentioned cooperation in several areas, such as tax regulation in bilateral trade, housing construction and, curiously, investment in rebuilding Syria, for which Iran has no money.

Like Minister Hatami, Teimur Bashirgonbadi spoke about the indispensable role that Iran’s private business plays in developing bilateral cooperation to rebuild infrastructure facilities and restore historical monuments. The new memorandum on cooperation should cover all preceding agreements and draw a line under the principal arrangements on rebuilding the country.

It should be noted that these are not the first negotiations on economic issues. Iran and Syria have already signed an agreement on rebuilding the power infrastructure. Previously, relevant negotiations were held between Minister of Energy of Iran Sattar Mahmoudi and his Syrian counterpart in Tehran. Mahmoudi noted then that the agreements achieved were worth hundreds of millions of euros. It was assumed that Iran would rebuild the 90MW power plant in Deir ez-Zor and build a 540MW power plant in the Latakia Governorate. At that point, MAPNA Group, a company with distant ties to the IRGC, was expected to undertake initial projects.

Arrangements in telecommunications had also been previously achieved. In 2017, Syria announced that an Iranian consortium with the participation of Mobin Group would take part in establishing the country’s third mobile network operator. The same IRGC-affiliated company took part in a 2010 tender, but lost to France’s Orange and the United Arab Emirate’s Etisalat. In 2017, the company was deemed to have enough potential to carry out the work. In addition, the Syrian authorities can use the accumulated potential of Iran’s telecom companies in communications control.

***

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria in the long term and, should the situation allow, partially follow the Lebanese scenario. Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria. Iran also reaffirms its active political role by participating in the Astana talks; another summit od heads of state took place in Iran on September 7, 2018.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

First published in our partner RIAC

Ph. D., Junior research associate at Higher School of Economics, Advisor of the PIR Center, RIAC expert

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The economic summit in Bahrain won’t be about Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Ksenia Svetlova

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In less than two weeks Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will present in Manama the first part of the long-awaited “deal of the century”, the peace initiative of president Donald Trump designed to find an ultimate solution for the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Iraq and Lebanon will not take part in the event, while Tehran had already accused the participants, mainly Saudi Arabia of “betrayal of the Palestinian struggle”. Following the massive pressure on Arab leaders and promises of significant economic development, the American administration was finally able to secure the participation of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and probably Morocco. Israel didn’t receive an official invitation for this event yet. It is, however, clear that it will be invited, and some rumors imply that PM Netanyahu himself might come to Bahrain, a country with which Israel doesn’t have any diplomatic relations.

Yet, it seems that this odd event in Manama will resemble a wedding without the bride. The groom will be there, so are the loving parents who will provide the dowry and the guests, but the bride, i.e. the Palestinian autonomy had already declared that it will not send any official or unofficial delegation to the upcoming economic conference.

The relations between the White House and the Palestinian administration had gone sour since President’s Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are suspicious of Trump’s attempts to promote “a deal” that might not include a reference to a two-state solution. For the last two years, the sole connection between Washington and Ramallah has been maintained by the respective security agencies.  Recent remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel on Israeli territorial claims in Judea and Samaria and the hints of Israel’s annexation plans intensified Palestinian concerns towards the unveiling of the first part of “the deal”. Palestinian officials had harshly criticized the participation of Arab countries in Bahrain conference, expressing hope that they will send low-key representation, while the Jordanian Kind explained that he decided to send a delegation to the summit “to listen and remain knowledgeable of what is taking place”.

Yet, the most fascinating thing about the economic conference is that it’s not at all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite its title. With only one year left prior to the US presidential elections and considering the political turmoil in Israel and the unwillingness of the Palestinian partner to engage in any plan presented by Trump’s administration, there is little hope in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington that the “deal of the Century” will accumulate in peaceful solution in the current century.

Why, then, the American administration is investing time and energy in the upcoming Bahrain summit? The answer is clear: mostly, to consolidate the alliance of the “moderate Arab states”.  Considering the recent dramatic events at the sea of Oman and the attack on two oil-tankers, it will not be far-fetched to imagine that the growing tensions in Iran will overshadow the official reason for the gathering. In the same fashion, the “anti-terror” conference in Warsaw that took place in February this year, was solely about Iran, while all other aspects of anti-terrorism activities were left behind. The deterioration of the situation in the Persian Gulf is crucial for the hosts and their allies – the Arab countries in the Gulf. Egypt and Jordan were required to be there because they are key American allies in the region who also maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. The plan that is envisaged by Kushner and Greenblatt will include economic benefits and development programs for both Amman and Cairo who are dealing with pressing economic hardships. Would they prefer to stay away from the conference that is being shunned by the Palestinians? Probably. Could these two countries, who receive significant economic help from the US say no to the invitation and not show up at the wedding of the century? Highly unlikely.

Ironically, some 52 years ago in Khartoum, it was the Arab league that had unanimously voted on the famous “three no’s” resolution in Khartoum, declining any possibility of dialogue with Israel. Today, when the Arab states are weakened by the “Arab spring” and preoccupied with growing tensions in the Persian Gulf while the focus has shifted from the Palestinian question elsewhere, they are more prone than ever to go along with practically any American plan, while the only ones who refuse to cooperate with Trump and obediently fulfil his orders are the Palestinians who will be absent from Manama gathering. The support of the Palestinian struggle and its importance in Arab politics had dwindled, while other regional affairs had moved center stage. Considering this dramatic change of circumstances, the odd wedding in Bahrain doesn’t seem so odd anymore. It can be seen as yet another step in American attempts to consolidate an Arab alliance against Iran. The Palestinian-Israel conflict that will keep simmering after the conference just as it did before has nothing to do with it.

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Who benefits most of suspicious attacks on oil tankers, tensions in the Gulf?

Payman Yazdani

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The events roiling the Persian Gulf in recent weeks and days have the potential to affect everything from the price of gas to the fate of small regional states.

A look at the tensions going on around the world including the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, East Europe, Venezuela all indicate that these tensions originate from the US administration’s unilateral unlawful measures.

The White House’s unlawful withdrawal from the Iran’s nuclear deal (JCPOA), designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, reimposing sanctions on Iran and trying to drive Iran’s oil export to zero all are provocative and suspicious moves of the US that have fueled the regional tensions.

The US and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s suspicious and provocative move to accuse Iran of being behind the attacks on two ships at Fujairah in the UAE without presenting any document was also foiled by Iran’s vigilant approach and reduced tensions to some extent.

While the Japanese Prime Minister is visiting Iran after 4 decades and many expected even more reduction of the tensions in the region due his visit, in another suspicious and provocative move two oil tankers were targeted in Sea of Oman, a move that can intensify the tensions more than before.

Undoubtedly the US and its proxies in the region as usual will accuse of Iran being behind the incident without any document in hours once again, but the main question is that who is benefiting the most of the tensions in the Persian Gulf region?

Pondering the following reasons one can realize that the number one beneficiary of the tensions and attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East is the USA and respectively Tel Aviv and the undemocratically  appointed rulers of some regional Arab states seeking their survival in following the US policies.

– Contrary to decades ago the US is now one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world seeking to grab the market share of the other countries in the world. Following US unlawful withdrawal from the JCPOA and its efforts to drive Iran’s oil export to zero under the pretext of different accusations, in fact the US is making efforts not only to grab Iran’s share of the energy market but also to limit Iran’s income to reduce Iran’s regional influence. The US move to create tensions in Venezuela and East Europe and slapping sanctions against Caracas and Moscow can also be interpreted in this line.

– Any tension in the Persian Gulf not only will increase the energy price in global market but also will create enough pretexts for Washington to boost its military presence in the region. This means control of energy routes by the US in order to contain its rivals like China, EU, Japan and new rising economies like India which their economies are heavily dependent on the energy coming from the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

– Tensions in the region besides Iranophobia project will guarantee continuation of purchase of American weapons by some regional countries such as Saudi Arabia. By continuation of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia the US not only creates thousands of jobs for Americans but also keeps its rivals like China and Russia out of Middle East weapon market.

– Tensions and conflicts created by the US in Middle East has resulted in great rifts and divergence among regional states which is vital for Tel Aviv’s security and its expansionist policies.

From our partner MNA

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The odds of success for Japanese PM’s visit to Iran

Payman Yazdani

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US President’s recent retreat from his previous rhetoric stances towards Iran should not be misinterpreted as the White House’s retreat from its policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran.

In line with its maximum pressure on Iran policy, on Friday the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran that target the country’s petrochemical industry, including its largest petrochemical holding group, the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (PGPIC).

The main reason behind the changes to Trump administration’s tone against Iran in fact is internal pressure on him. Americans are against a new war in the region. Also opposition from the US allies which will suffer from great losses in case of any war in the region is another reason behind change to Trump’s tone.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is slated to visit Tehran on Wednesday June 12. He hopes to use his warm relation with Iran and the US to mediate between the countries.

Besides Abe’s warm relations with Iranian and the US leaders there are others reasons that potentially make him a proper mediator including Japan’s efforts to have independent Middle East policy and not having imperialistic record in the region which is a good trust building factor for Iran.

Above all, as the third largest economy of the world Japan is very dependent on the energy importing from the region. Japan imports 80 percent of its consuming energy from the Middle East which passes through Hormuz strait, so any war and confrontation in the region will inflict great losses and damages to the country’s economy and consequently to the world economy.

To answer the question that how Mr. Abe’s efforts will be effective to settle the tensions depends on two factors.

First on the ‘real will’ and determination of the US and Iran to solve the ongoing problems especially the US ‘real will’. One cannot ask for talk and at the same time further undermine the trust between the two sides by taking some hostile measures like new sanctions that the US slapped against Iran’s petrochemical section last night on the eve of Mr. Abe’s visit to Tehran. If there is a real will, even no need to mediator.

Second we have to wait to see that how the Japanese PM will be able to affect the US’ decisions. Iran’s Keivan Khosravi spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council said efforts to remove US extraterritorial sanctions against Iran could guarantee the success of Japanese PM’s visit to the Islamic Republic.

From our partner MNA

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