(Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force visiting the frontline somewhere in Iraq.)
A new phase is beginning in Iran’s approach to the situation since last May when the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran had thus far prioritised the consolidation of Western opinion against President Trump’s decision with a view to effectively counter the US sanctions. But with hindsight, it appears that Europeans might posture against the US sanctions, but business interests ultimately prevail and the hard reality is that European companies that have exposure to the American market will not risk US sanctions.
Certainly, the drop in oil income following the US sanctions has hurt the Iranian economy and Tehran admits it openly. The Trump administration now plans to unveil an even harsher sanctions regime in May. According to reports, Washington aims to bring down Iran’s oil exports further.
Meanwhile, the US-Israel-Saudi-UAE nexus against Iran is actively working to create instability within Iran, weaken the regime and incapacitate it from playing regional role. Saudi money is challenging Iran’s towering multi-dimensional presence in Iraq.
Although the US is notionally withdrawing troops from Syria, the efforts continue to roll back Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria. Iran mentors the battle-hardened Shi’ite militia forces numbering tens of thousands in Iraq and Syria, which fought against the ISIS. Iran’s continuing presence in Syria poses an insurmountable obstacle to Israel’s designs to weaken and dominate Syria and to legitimise its illegal occupation of Golan Heights.
Suffice to say, Tehran finds itself besieged. Of course, Iran’s regime has lived through dangerous periods through the past 4 decades and there is no question of capitulation. But an inflection point has been reached and a new trajectory has become necessary in terms of Iran’s political economy as well as to overcome the geo-strategic challenges.
There have been incipient signs change in the most recent months — in various statements by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in particular — indicative of a new pathway that would jettison the earlier obsession with the Western countries and abandon the strategy to put eggs in the EU basket. Khamenei repeatedly stressed Iran’s inner strength and the resilience of ‘resistance’.
Without doubt, the unannounced visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Tehran on February 27 augured that a Syrian-Iranian alliance with far-reaching geopolitical significance is taking shape. Khamenei stated during his meeting with Assad: “The Islamic Republic of Iran regards helping the Syrian government and nation as assisting the Resistance movement, and genuinely takes pride in it… Syria, with its people’s persistence and unity, managed to stand strong against a big coalition of the US, Europe and their allies in the region and victoriously come out of it… Iran and Syria are strategic allies and the identity and power of Resistance depend on their continuous and strategic alliance, because of which, the enemies will not be able to put their plans into action.”
Khamenei repeatedly used the metaphor of the resistance to characterise the Iran-Syria alliance. The charismatic commander of the Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani neatly summed up that Assad’s visit was a “celebration of victory” for the resistance front.
(Gen. Soleimani at a meeting of resistance commanders of the Nujaba in Falluja, Iraq. The Nujaba has dedicated a song to Soleimani.)
Indeed, Khamenei has since decorated Soleimani with Iran’s most prestigious medal of honor, the Order of Zulfiqar. There is much symbolism here, since Soleimani happens to be the first Iranian commander to receive the Order of Zulfiqar after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran is applauding Soleimani’s profound contribution to the resistance. To be sure, Iran is returning to its revolutionary moorings.
Thus, the meeting between the top commanders of the armed forces of Iran, Iraq and Syria which took place in Damascus on Sunday was geared to flesh out a coordinated plan to meet the challenges in regional security. Some reports mentioned that Soleimani too was in Damascus on Sunday.
While receiving the the three army commanders in Damascus, Assad reportedly said that the blood of Syrians, Iranians, and Iraqis “have mixed in the battle against terrorism and its mercenaries, who are considered as a mere façade for the countries that support them.”
Equally, Iranian president Rouhani’s recent visit to Iraq can be put in perspective. As a senior Chinese expert on West Asia has noted, Rouhani’s visit has “long-term geopolitical implications” in terms of expansion of Iran’s regional influence, apart from giving traction to the “resistance” politics (against US and Israel.)
The Chinese expert wrote that Iraq is refusing to be part of US’ containment strategy against Iran and Rouhani’s visit consolidates Iran’s influence in Iraq, which in turn also enhances its capacity to offer a “stark counterbalance” to US influence over Iraq. Again, Iran sees Iraq as a gateway to bust the US sanctions. Geopolitically, the expert underscored, the new dynamic strengthens Tehran’s strategy to create a regional axis between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which would have an edge over Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, Rouhani is likely to visit Syria as well in the near future.
Clearly, resistance politics creates strategic depth for Iran to push back at the US. But there is also a bigger dimension to it. Tehran plans to step up its participation in Syrian infrastructure construction. Ultimately, Iran’s economic relations with Iraq and Syria will be further strengthened in addition to its political and strategic relations with the two countries.
Very few details of yesterday’s meeting of army commanders in Damascus have emerged but one concrete outcome is the reopening of the Syrian-Iraqi border in the “coming days”, which of course, will facilitate a road link connecting Iran with Syria and Lebanon via Iraq. This is a major development insofar as a direct road link becomes possible connecting Iran with Syria and Lebanon. One main objective of the US military presence in Syria was to thwart such a transportation route that would significantly boost Iran’s influence and presence in the Levant. There have been reports that Iran may use Latakia port in Syria to access the world market.