There are sequential events and developments on the troubled Middle East front. A few months ago, the traditional public opinion was that all circumstances were in Iran’s favor, and Iran was reinforcing its influence through its direct and indirect involvement in the region’s crises, supported by the easing of the international sanctions without any “behavioral” condition.
However, the scene today is no longer clear, due to the urgent regional circumstances that involve Russia, the new administration in Washington and the bold Arab positions.
The geopolitics of the region is moving fast. Russia and Turkey cooperated regarding the Syrian issue; American, Russian and Turkish generals have met in southern Turkey to avoid a military clash when facing ISIS. Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, has then become stronger and the US forces in Iraq began to deploy checkpoints on a large part of the borders; Iraqi voices started to call for Iran’s withdrawal. Therefore, it can be seen that Iran is losing its influence and can no longer put or object on agendas, like its allies or rivals, who are also working to protect their fundamental interests. There are some who said that Iran had a role in the chemical bombing in Syria, and that more than 20 Iranians were killed in the American bombing on Syrian Shayrat military base.
Iran is concerned about the Russian position, as their partnership has moved from the level of coalition to a less stable state. When Russia intervened in 2015 in Syria, its message was clear: Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime did not achieve its objectives. Then Moscow turned to Ankara, as it was more useful; however, Russia went back alone and seized control in Syria because it was sure that Turkey does not have enough influence on the Syrian forces against Assad. Then the chemical strike took place, followed by the American raid.
Iran is cautiously watching the new US administration's moves. President Donald Trump seems to be planning on carrying out his election promises of being tougher towards IranHuda al Husseini
During this period, Iran noticed a decline in its personal cooperation with Russia. This was reflected in its strategy for Syria, so Iran headed to Qatar to discuss the exchange of the people of Kafria and al-Foua (north of Idlib) with the people of Zabadani and Madaya (north-west of Damascus).
There are two main points in this painful displacement: Russia wants an undivided and secular Syria as it has heavily invested in Syria and wants to achieve this goal among other ones, and Iran answered back by securing passages from its borders to the Mediterranean; it is a strategic need for Iran that wants to deliver weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is why Iran wanted to protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rushed in 2011 with Hezbollah to support the regime that was falling. According to reports, one of its goals is to spread its supply passages and build pipelines extending from east to west across Iraq to the Syrian coast. Hence, the latest displacement plan will change the face of Syria.
On the other hand, Iran is cautiously watching the new US administration's moves. President Donald Trump seems to be planning on carrying out his election promises of being tougher towards Iran.
In a statement to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), CIA director Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the strike on the Syrian base was a message to Iran that the US was ready to use the needed force to protect its interests.
Pompeo linked the Tomahawk missiles launched on the air base that was used to launch chemical weapons, to Iran’s compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency. He said that his agency was closely monitoring Iran’s commitment to the agreement, including declared and undeclared nuclear facilities. He added: “We must keep in mind what happened in Syria and go back and read the agreement, especially regarding the declared and undeclared facilities, and the extent to which the IAEA auditors have reached these facilities; this is the level of certainty that we want to provide to the general leader”. He explained: “What I mean is that the Syrian strike was a decision-making process that was pivotal, deliberate and strongly built on a realistic understanding of the strategic importance of what we are facing today.”
When talking about Assad, Pompeo said that “there was someone who violated the ban on the use of chemical weapons, and that is not important.” This is why I think that the Iranians should be aware that this administration is ready to undertake activities that are different from what America has been doing in the last few years.
Violating the deal?
The CIA is checking whether Iran is violating the deal through secret nuclear activities. He added: “The agreement did not make Iran a friendly country as it is still sponsoring terrorism; the Iranian plan is still the same: it includes working on increasing their ability to deliver missiles to face Israel through Hezbollah, and increasing their activity through Shiite militias in Mosul. They also support Houthis in Yemen to launch rockets against Saudi Arabia. He added: The list of Iranian violations has increased significantly since the signing of the nuclear deal. Iran supports the Shiite crescent in the Middle East and this is not convenient for US interests.
For his part, Joseph Votel, the commander of United States Central Command, had ranked Iran in fifth place among the top five threats in the Middle East, and presented on the 9th of this month some details on the American strategy of containment: “We must be more effective in the gray area, through strong deterrence means, and capacity-building of allied countries. Iran must realize that there will be dire consequences if it decides to continue its malicious activities designed to provoke the region.” General Votel’s support “for direct contacts with the Iranian leadership, to improve transparency and reduce misjudgment probability” was remarkable.
At the same time, Trump used his meetings with Arab and Israeli leaders to confirm his intentions to tighten measures aiming to contain Iran and put pressure on it “in collaboration with regional friends.” Finally, the Trump administration took new economic sanctions against senior Iranian officials and the prison’s system there because of the widespread human rights abuses. Sohrab Soleimani, who is responsible for the infamous Evin prison, is the brother of General Qassem Soleimani, who is in charge of the terrorist Iranian activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
It is not by chance that Sohrab Soleimani is the brother of Qassem Soleimani. The first ran a prison known for arbitrary and coercive interrogations, ill-treatment of prisoners, the burial of many and giving their parents a paper with the grave number later on. The second does not need to be introduced; he has not ended the war but is rather still on the Iran-Iraq war, lost by Iran. He is leading the operations there through militias that have killed, destroyed and displaced people.
These new sanctions are adopted by the Trump administration, under the current broad review of all matters related to the nuclear agreement. An increase in human rights violations was observed under reformist President Hassan Rowhani. The new sanctions do not conflict with the US commitments under the nuclear deal, and are not dealt with as part of that deal.
The shifts in the regional dynamics, which include Russia and the US, place Iran on the defense. After the chemical strike, Russia intensified its contacts with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir will visit Moscow on the 26th of this month. As for the US, it is learning that strengthening military operations in Yemen and Syria without a dominant political game plan, does not put the new administration in a good position. In a warning message to North Korea, US Vice President Mike Pence said: “The time for the patience strategy is over, pointing to North Korea and Iran, adding to the Tomahawk message that was sent to Iran.
This article first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat.