Senior Iranian Officials' Statements on Iran's Regional Involvement
Senior Iranian Officials' Statements on Iran's Regional Involvement
The logo of the Fatemiyoun battalion
The funeral held for Manouchehr Sa'idi (Farsnews.com, June 14, 2015)
ISIS threatens Iran: A notice published in Iranian media showing ISIS flags flying near the Azadi Tower in Tehran.
From https://www.facebook.com/IRGCSF?fref=photo, June 9, 2015.
Iranian Religious and Propagation Activities around the Globe
Highlights of the week
Spotlight on Iran is a new, bimonthly Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center bulletin intended to shed light on Iran's activities to establish its influence in the Middle East and beyond. It is based on reports in the Iranian media. Spotlight on Iran is written for the ITIC by Dr. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow in the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies in Tel Aviv University and a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking. His fields of expertise include the politics, society, foreign policy and social networks in the Islamic Republic.
Senior Iranian Officials' Statements on Iran's Regional Involvement
- ISIS's control of the city of Tadmor and its environs and the Syrian desert, the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to the organization and Saudi attacks in Yemen were the focus of statements made by Iranian officials regarding Iran's regional intervention in the past two weeks.
- Ali-Akbar Velayati, former Iranian foreign minister, advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and head of the Center for Strategic Studies in the Iranian Expediency Council, accused the United States, Israel and the "reactionary" Arab states of responsibility for the difficult situation in Syria. Interviewed by Iranian TV on May 31, 2015, he claimed their intervention in Syria was part of a comprehensive plan to enable them to take control of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. However, he denied reports that the Assad regime was floundering and said it was "almost 100% certain" that while the terrorist organizations had occupied some of the country, they would not be able to advance or succeed in overthrowing the Syrian regime. Regarding the situation in Yemen, he said Iran maintained contact with certain elements in Yemen, including the Houthis, and supported them but did not provide weapons because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the Houthis had no need of Iranian weapons (ISNA, June 1, 2015).
- At a press conference held by Velayati on June 6, 2015, after meeting with the UN secretary general's envoy for Iraqi affairs, he claimed that without Iranian support Syria and Iraq would not be able to cope easily with the terrorists. He said that Iran was helping Iraq in every way it could against the terrorists, especially ISIS, and supported unity among Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, and the territorial cohesion of its neighbor. He said the activities of the American-led international coalition against ISIS were useless because the coalition was unwilling to support the popular Shi'ite militias (Tasnim News, June 6, 2015).
- Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, former Iranian ambassador to Iraq and current advisor to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, was also asked about the developments in Syria and Iraq in an interview with the conservative KhabarOnline website. He claimed the Iraqi army had been defeated at Ramadi because the popular militias did not help it fight ISIS, and because of the objections of the Americans, who claimed their help would lead to Shi'ite-Sunni conflicts. He also noted the lack of American support for the Iraqi army during ISIS's advance as an additional reason for the defeat of the Iraqi army at Ramadi.
- Kazemi-Qomi warned that if it became impossible to halt ISIS's territorial progress, Iran would be in serious danger, and said Iran had to broaden its regional influence and collaborate with the countries facing ISIS terrorism. He said Iran would struggle against all aggression, whether it came from takfiri organizations or from the Saudi regime attacking the innocent Houthis. If the Yemenis asked Iran for help, he said, Iran would not withhold it because it had an obligation to provide them with humanitarian, religious and national support. Asked if that would include military support, Kazemi-Qomi replied that Iran did not have a military presence in any of the countries it supported: Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or Iraq. Rather, it sent only military advisors and logistic support. The collaboration between Iran and those countries, he claimed, was only intended to protect its own national interests, and that was why so far ISIS had not succeeded in its attempts to enter Iran.
Iran does in fact not directly intervene militarily by sending Iranian military forces to the conflict zones in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. However, the claim that Iran only sends military advisors and logistic support is false. Iran uses various Shi'ite organizations and emissaries as proxies, and they do in fact both receive military support and take orders from the Iranians, mainly through the Qods Force. Such organizations include the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shi'ite militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
- Noting the developments in Yemen, Kazemi-Qomi accused Saudi Arabia of employing terrorist policies and warned that if its terrorism were not halted it would spread throughout the entire region, including Iran. ISIS, he said, was not limited to Iraq and did not recognize geographical boundaries. He added that Iran's support for Iraq was intended to prevent it from being divided, because such a division was liable to have a negative influence on Iran. Iranian support for Iraq and Syria would continue as long as the security situation there made it necessary, and as long as the Iraqi and Syrian governments requested it (www.khabaronline.ir, June 1, 2015).
- Interviewed by Fars News on June 9, Hojjat-ul-Islam Ali Sa'idi, the Supreme Leader's representative in the Revolutionary Guards, claimed that under the leadership of Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolution had reached the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Straits. He claimed Iran did not seek to impose Shi'a on the world but was working in the name of all Islam. He also claimed Khomeini and Khamenei had never supported particularly Shi'ite concepts, and therefore Iran supported both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Sa'idi's statements reflect Iran's understanding that defining the Middle Eastern regional conflicts as religious and between Shi'ites and Sunnis increases the concern in the Arab world regarding the "Shi'ite threat," deepens the suspicions which already exist between Iran and the Sunni Arab countries, and make it difficult for Iran to promote its regional influence. Senior Iranian figures therefore make an effort to gloss over the interethnic rift and call for Shi'ite-Sunni unity, stressing that only Islamic unity will make it possible to resolve regional issues. The influence of Iran's public diplomacy is limited, however, in view of Iran's policies which encourage Shi'ite dominance, especially in Iraq.
Iranian Intervention in Syria
- In view of ISIS's recent military achievements in Syria, during the past two weeks Arab and Western media have issued reports on Iran's intention to increase its involvement in Syria to halt ISIS's progress and keep the Syrian regime from collapsing. Senior Iranian officials repeatedly stressed Iran's commitment to the Syrian regime, but so far there is no proof of an increase in Iranian forces or an Iranian presence in Syria.
- During a visit Mohammad al-Laham, the chairman of the Syrian parliament, in Tehran at the beginning of June 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran would stand beside the Syrian government and people to the end, and expressed his faith in Syria's capabilities to be victorious in the campaign against terrorism (Fars News, June 2, 2015). Ali-Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to the Supreme Leader for international affairs, also stated that Iran would continue to support Syria because Syria was a front in the struggle against the Zionists. In a ceremony held to mark the anniversary of the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Velayati said that Syrian President Bashar Assad was as beloved today in his country as always (Fars News, June 4, 2015). Hossein Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, claimed that there was no change in Iran's position on Syria and that Iranian support for Syria in its struggle against terrorism was strategic and not tactical (KhabarOnline, June 9, 2015).
- At the beginning of June the Arab media reported that Qasem Soleimani, IRGC-Qods Force commander, had visited Syria. On June 1, 2015, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese website Al-Hadath reported that Soleimani had visited the fronts in southern and western Syria to get a first-hand look at the situation and to formulate a military strategy to halt the progress of the radical Sunni organizations. According to the report, he visited the region of Idlib in western Syria after Al-Nusra Front had taken control of the city and headed a delegation of senior military advisors from Iran and Hezbollah who visited the Al-Ghab region in the northwestern part of the country to examine the Syrian army deployment and formulate ways to stop the advance of "takfiri organizations" [that is, Al-Nusra Front and its allies operating in the Idlib province, whose advance threatens Latakia and the strongholds of the Syrian regime along the coast].
- Al-Hadath sources reported that after the visit Qasem Soleimani concluded it would not be possible to halt the advance of Al-Nusra Front in the Idlib region because of its proximity to the Turkish border, and therefore supporters of the Syrian regime had to be withdrawn to the Al-Ghab region and reinforcements had to be sent. The website also reported that during the visit Soleimani appointed a senior Revolutionary Guards figure to head a group of military advisors in Syria and to act for him in every aspect of directing military affairs in Syria in collaboration with Hezbollah and the Syrian army. The website's sources denied, however, a statement allegedly made by Soleimani to the effect that the world would be surprised by developments in Syria in the near future following the collaboration between Iran and the commanders of the Syrian army (Mashreq News, June 1, 2015). The sources claimed that Soleimani had never made such a statement and did not customarily make promises about future military successes.
- In addition, at the beginning of June there were a number of reports in the media about Iran's intention to send thousands of Iranian and Iraqi soldiers to Syria to support the Assad regime. Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Iranian Expediency Council, denied the reports, claiming that Iran had no intention of intervening directly in the Syrian civil war. After an Expediency Council meeting Rezaei also claimed that the rumor which spread in the West concerning Iran's intention to activate its bilateral defense treaty with Syria, which would enable it to send forces to defend the Syrian regime, was baseless (Mehr News, June 6, 2015). Ms. Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman for the Iranian foreign ministry, also denied the reports about an Iranian military presence in Syria (Fars News, June 10, 2015).
- Meanwhile, the Iranian Defa Press website posted an interview with Said Ibrahim, a fighter in the so-called Fatemiyoun Battalion, which is composed of Shi'ite Afghan refugees residing in Iran. They are recruited by Iran for the fighting in Syria in return for a monthly salary and various benefits. In February 2015 Ali-Reza Tavasoli, the battalion commander, was killed along with some of his fighters in an attack on the Assad regime supported by Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards in the Daraa province in the southern Golan Heights. Reportedly, Iran has recently decided to upgrade the force to division strength.
- In the interview Said Ibrahim described the determination of the battalion fighters against ISIS in Syria, their strong faith and willingness to sacrifice. He said that the battalion was composed of fighters of all ages and a variety of social classes. He said that an 85 year-old fighter participated in a recent operation and had insisted on fighting alongside the younger fighters. Said Ibrahim also described the difficult personal emotions he experienced in being separated from his family in Iran. He said the last time he was in Iran after having been wounded in the fighting, his wife gave birth to their baby boy in the same hospital. He said his wife was not pleased with his fighting in Syria and that every time he wanted to leave the house and return there, he made up an excuse and went.
- Said Ibrahim said that the fighters in the battalion received "jihadi names" which were also used by their comrades so that they could not be identified. He said there had been instances in the past when relatives of Afghan fighters received death threats, and in some cases had actually been killed, because their family members participated in the fighting. He complained that despite the participation of the Afghans in the fighting in Syria, the Afghans in Iran were still treated poorly.
Iranian Intervention in Iraq
- Manouchehr Sa'idi, a member of the Basij militia of the Revolutionary Guards, who worked as an engineer in an Iraqi village, was killed at the beginning of June in an ISIS attack. Sa'idi, 34, from Qorveh in the Kurdistan province, was buried on June 4, 2015. His funeral was attended by the Supreme Leader's representative in the Kurdistan province, the governor of the province and other important people (IRNA.ir, June 4, 2015).
- After ISIS took control of the city of Ramadi, senior Iranian officials tried to calm fears that ISIS might advance toward the Iran-Iraq border. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, said that in the past ISIS had tried a number of times to extend the fighting to the Iranian border, but did not have the capabilities to do so (IRNA, May 31, 2015). Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, also claimed that ISIS did to have the courage to approach Iran's borders. He said Iran was determined to destroy the organization everywhere within 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) of the border (ISNA, June 2, 2015).Iranian social networks posted new information about the presence of the Qods Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in Iraq. A Facebook video documented him in a meeting with Sunni tribal elders in Anbar Province, held to convince them to fight alongside the Shi'ite militias against ISIS.
- Recent pictures were also posted of Soleimani accompanied by Jamal al-Ibrahimi (below, left) and Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis (right), commander of the Hezbollah brigades, one of the Shi'ite militias in Iraq established by the Revolutionary Guards in 2007.
- Qais Hassan, chairman of the Afghan parliamentary transportation committee, claimed last week that Afghan airplanes operating in collaboration with an Iranian airline were being used to transport forces from Iran to Baghdad and Najaf in Iraq (Asriran.com, June 9, 2015).
Iranian Intervention in Yemen
- Speaking out strongly about the situation in Yemen, Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that the oppression of the Yemenis was worse that that of the Gazans. In a meeting with clerics in the city of Qom, he said that while journalists inform the world about the "crimes of the Zionist regime," in Yemen there were no journalists to make the cry of the oppressed heard. He called the war Saudi Arabia was waging in Yemen "illogical and the stupidest war in history." He called it part of a plot to restore regional hegemony to the United States and stressed that the resistance of the people of Yemen to the invaders would continue till victory (Sepah News, June 7, 2015).
- The Iranian cargo sent to Yemen in the middle of May aboard the ship Iran Shahed, apparently reached its destination after a significant delay as Iran had been forced to allow UN inspectors in Djibouti to examine it. Its contents consisted of 2,500 tons of food, water, medicines, tents and blankets. The representative of the Iranian Red Crescent in Djibouti said that after having been transferred to five small ships the cargo proceeded on to Yemen (Tasnim News, June 5, 2015).
- Two journalists who had been aboard the ship were interviewed by the Defa Press website. They reported the events that led to the change in the ship's route. They said that the decision to launch the ship had been made in Iran after several unsuccessful attempts to send aid to Yemen by air. The Iranian authorities selected as passengers the two journalists, members of the Iranian Red Crescent and several activists from the United States, France and Germany who opposed the war in Yemen. When the ship entered the Gulf of Aden it was escorted by an Iranian naval force. Reports were then received from Iran about a change in the route from Yemen to Djibouti, although initially they were told that after the cargo had been examined the ship would be allowed to proceed to al-Hudaydah port. The journalists said that they were not worried about being attacked by the Saudi and Pakistani warships that approached the ship because they were of the opinion that Saudi Arabia did not have the courage to attack it. According to the journalists, upon reaching Djibouti they were warmly received by local residents, one of whom even praised former Iranian President Ahmadinejad for his "anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist" positions. The government of Djibouti, however, refused to issue visas for the crewmembers and did not allow them to come ashore (Defa Press, June 7, 2015).
- On June 6, 2015, another ship left the Bandar Imam Khomeini port in Khuzestan in southwest Iran, bound for Yemen. Sa'dullah Abdullahi, the chairman of the port organization of Khuzestan, said that the ship Arezou ("wish" in Persian) was carrying 8,000 tons of rice and 1,000 tons of sugar (ISNA, June 7, 2015).
- Hossein Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, claimed Iran was prepared to send additional humanitarian aid to Yemen through the Red Cross. Meeting with the head of the Red Cross delegation in Yemen, Abdhollahian said it was unacceptable that wounded Yemenis, women and children among them, were being denied the right to medical treatment due to the "cruel" aerial and naval closure imposed on Yemen by Saudi Arabia (Fars News June 3, 2015).
Iranian Intervention in Lebanon
- On June 4, 2015, the Iranian embassy in Beirut held its annual ceremony to mark the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, who died 26 years ago. Nabih Berri, the chairman of the Lebanese parliament, send a communiqué congratulating Iran and claiming Lebanon had learned the lesson of victory from Khomeini and how to preserve it. He said that Iran could serve as a model for Lebanon and teach it how to construct communities and preserve their stability (Alef, June 4, 2015). Naim Qassem, deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, said during the ceremony that Iran helped the Lebanese "resistance" in liberating Lebanon without receiving anything in return and that today Hezbollah openly stood shoulder to shoulder with Iran, the Imam Khomeini, the Imam Khamenei, Hassan Nasrallah and all those who had chosen the Supreme Leader's path of truth (Khorasan News, June 4, 2015).
- Amir-Hossein Ziaei, chairman of the Iranian Red Crescent, inaugurated a new medical center in Baalbek. Three floors high and with an area of 1,200 square meters, it has an operating room, a recovery room, a blood bank, a pharmacy and a physical therapy room. The ceremony inaugurating the center, whose construction began in 2011, was attended by the heads of the Lebanese Red Cross, members of the Norwegian Red Cross, which donated to the building fund, representatives of Hezbollah and the Amal movement and senior local clerics (IRNA.ir, June 5, 2015).
Iranian Intervention in the Palestinian Arena
- The anniversary of Khomeini's death gave senior Iranian officials another opportunity to emphasize Iran's commitment to the Palestinians. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a speech at the main ceremony, claiming Iran would never abandon the Palestinian people and that the Palestinian cause would never be taken off the Islamic Revolution's agenda (Iranian TV, June 4, 2015). Ali-Akbar Velayati, his advisor for international affairs, gave a speech before the International Islamic Awakening Conference in Tehran in which he claimed Iran would support the Palestinian people with all the means at its disposal and that no obstacle would keep Iran from sending aid to the Palestinians. Iran, he claimed, considered itself responsible for helping the oppressed people of the Muslim world, especially the Palestinians (IRNA.ir, June 3, 2015).
Iranian Intervention in the Gulf States
- This past week the ministry of the interior in Bahrain accused Iran of involvement in anti-Bahrain terrorist activities. The accusations came in the wake of the detention of a number of Shi'ite citizens who, according to the claims of the authorities, were members of a terrorist group called Saraya al-Ashtar which had carried out a series of terrorist attacks against policemen in recent years. The detainees admitted to having been recruited for the attacks by the leaders of the group, who lived in Iran, and that they had been sent to Iraq for training (Alarabiya, June 7, 2015). A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry rejected and denied the accusations (ISNA, June 10, 2015).
Iranian Religious and Propagation Activities around the Globe
- This year as well, Iranian legations around the globe organized propagating activities for the anniversary of Khomeini's death. The Iranian Cultural Center in Armenia issued an edition of an illustrated book by Ali Sabzian called Living According to Ruhollah's Lifestyle, translated into Armenian. It represents the life of Khomeini and is intended to reveal to Armenian readers the story of Khomeini's life, concepts and moral qualities (Mehr News.com, June 2, 2015).
- Last week the Iranian embassy in Brazil held a memorial service for Khomeini attended by two of his grandchildren, Hassan and Ali Khomeini, as well as Muslim clerics from Brazil (ISNA, June 4, 2015).
- A conference was held in Thailand in memory of Khomeini, attended by Hossein Kamalian, the Iranian ambassador to Bangkok; Mostafa Najjarian-Zadeh, the cultural attaché; Mohammad-Hassan Akhtari, the secretary general of the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly; and local Shi'ite and Sunni clerics. Speaking before the assembly, Akhtari said that Khamenei was continuing Khomeini's path. As to the campaign in Yemen, he said that those bombing Yemenis were not Muslims but traitors to the name of Islam (Abna News, June 8, 2015). A similar event was held in Istanbul attended by Ayatollah Sheikh Mohsen Araki, a member of the Ahl al-Bayt supreme council; the Iranian cultural attaché in Turkey and local clerics (Ibna.ir, June 9, 2015).
- On June 6, 2015, the Islamic Center in Hamburg, Germany, held a conference to discuss Khomeini, attended by Abbas Badakhshan Zohouri, the Iranian consul general in Hamburg; Ms. Fatemeh Tabataba'i, wife of Khomeini's son Ahmad; Hojjat-ul-Islam Reza Ramazani, director of the Islamic Center in Hamburg and chairman of the European Union of Shi'ite Clerics; and Muslim clerics from Germany and Austria (Hawza News, June 7, 2015).
- Hayel Daoud, the Jordanian minister of religious endowments, denied a CNN report that Iran had approached Iran with an official request to allow Iranian pilgrims to visit the holy sites and to allow Iran to open a religious seminary in Jordan. He claimed no official request had been received from Iran and that the issue had only been referred to verbally on a number of occasions. Daoud claimed that in view of regional conditions and developments, Jordan did not intend to allow Iranian religious tourism in the country (Asr-e Iran, June 7, 2015).
Al-Ghab plain is located on the road from Idlib to Latakia, lying between the cities of Ariah and Jisr al-Shughur, both occupied by Al-Nusra Front and its allies.