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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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Iraq: Three Years of Drastic Changes (2019-2022)

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When the wave of the protests broke out at the beginning of October 2019 in Iraq, the Iraqi politicians did not realize the size of the gap between the demands of the protesters which were accumulated more than seventeen years, and the isolation of the politicians from the needs of the people. The waves of the protests began in a small range of different areas in Iraq. Rapidly, it expanded as if it were a rolling snowball in many regions of Iraqi governorates. Moreover, the platforms of social media and the influencers had a great impact on unifying the people against the government and enhancing the protest movement.

Al Tarir Square was the region where most protesters and demonstrators were based there. At that time, they stayed all day in this region and set up their tents to protest and demonstrate against the public situation of their life.

The protesters demanded their looted rights and asked for making economic reforms, finding job opportunities, changing the authority, and toppling the government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The protest stayed between ebb and tide, pressuring the political authority in Iraq.

A new period began in the history of Iraq where clashes between the protesters and the riot forces broke out in Al Tahrir Square and many governorates in the south of Iraq. Tear gas and ductile bullets were used against the protesters to compel them to retreat and disperse them. But the protesters insisted on continuing their demands. Many protesters were killed and wounded due to the intensive violence against them. The strong pressure with falling many martyrs gave its fruit when the Iraqi representatives of the Parliament endeavored to achieve the protesters’ demands by changing the election law into a new one. On 24 December 2019, the Iraqi Parliament approved of changing the unfair Saint Leigo election law into the open districts. The new law divided Iraq into 83 electoral districts.

Moreover, this violent protest led to the collapse of the Iraqi government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. He was compelled to resign by the end of 2019. Many political names were nominated by the Iraqi politicians but the protesters refused them all because they were connected with different political parties.

Finally, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who worked in the Iraqi Intelligence Service and had no party, was nominated by the politicians to be the new Prime Minister. He was well-known for ambiguity and far from the lights of media.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has become the Prime Minister in March 2020. The protests were over at the beginning of April 2020. With the taking of responsibility of helping Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised the protesters, who were called “Octoberians”, to hold a premature election, and the election was fixed on 10 June 2020.

Many politicians tried to postpone or cancel the premature election. Under their pressure, the premature election was postponed and fixed on 10 October 2020. During Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s period as a Prime Minister, he opened new channels with the Arab states to enhance the cooperation and held many summits to support Iraq in the next stage.

Attempts to postpone the premature election by the Iraqi politicians were on equal foot, but all these attempts failed and the election occurred on the due time.

Before the election, many Octoberians and influencers encouraged the people not to participate in the election. On the day of the election, it witnessed low participation, and people were convinced of not happening any change. These calls gave their fruits in the process of elections in Iraq where the election witnessed very low participation, and most Iraqis refused to participate and vote to the nominees even though there was a new election law. When the elections were over, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq announced that the results would be within two days. After announcing the results of the election partially and defeating many political factions in the Iraqi arena, many convictions were directed to the commission, and it was convicted by fraud and manipulation with the results. This aspect affected the activity of the Commission and led to put great pressure on it. After two weeks of pressure and convictions, the final results of the elections were announced and many political elite Iraqi leaders were defeated gravely.

The results of the election gave a new start through new leaders who were supporting the October revolution that happened in 2019. And most names of these winning movements and alliances were inspired by the October Movement. Those, who represented October Revolution, were also convicted by other Octoberians that Octoberian winners in the election deviated from the aims of the October Revolution.

A new struggle has begun between the losers in the election and the new winners who will have the right to be in the next term of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Representatives. Moreover, many independent individuals won in the election, and the conflict would deepen the scope of dissidence between the losers and winners. Finally, all raised claims of election fraud have not changed the political situation.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.  The Shiite Sadrist movement, which represents 73 seats, has wiped out its competitors. This aspect has compelled the losing Shiite competitors to establish an alliance called “Coordination Framework” to face the Sadrist movement, represented by the cleric Sayyed Muqtada al-Sader. On the other hand, Al-Takadum Movement (Progress Party), represented by the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, has taken the second rank with 37 seats.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.

Finally, the first session of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council was held. Mohamed Al-Halbousi has been elected as the spokesman of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council. During the next fifteen days, the president of the republic will be elected.

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China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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