The summit held in Sochi of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents failed to conclude with a concrete agreement. The closing statement of the summit emphasized the need to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
Senior Iranian officials continue to issue warnings against continued Israeli efforts to counter Iranian entrenchment in Syria: during the Sochi summit, President Rouhani called on the international community to end Israel’s “illegally intervention” in Syria; at the Munich Security Conference, Foreign Minister Zarif warned that Israel’s continuous activities in Syria may lead to the outbreak of a war; and the chief of the staff of the Iranian armed forces warned in Moscow that Israeli attacks in Syria harm the possibility to restore security and stability to the country.
Iranian minister of foreign affairs conducted a two-day visit in Lebanon during which he met senior Lebanese government officials, the secretary general of Hezbollah and representatives of Palestinian organizations in Lebanon. This is Zarif’s first visit in Lebanon since the formation of the new government in Beirut. Meanwhile, Zarif aroused criticism in Iran after declaring, during a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, that Iran is proud to be under pressure due to its support for the Palestinians.
Expansion of Iran’s economic and cultural activity in the region: During a hearing held at the Syrian parliament, the Syrian minister of communications and technology confirmed that there are ongoing talks with an Iranian cellphone network operator to establish a third cellular network in the country. In Baghdad, Iranian and Iraqi representatives signed an agreement on scientific and cultural cooperation between the Iranian Azad University and Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
On February 14, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey met for a summit held in Sochi, Russia. The summit focused on various issues pertaining to Syria, including the Idlib and Manbij regions, whose fate remains disputed between the three countries’ leaderships.
In the concluding statement of the summit, which ended without any concrete decisions, the three presidents emphasized the need to preserve Syria’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The statement also addressed the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from Syria, describing the step as beneficial for Syria’s stability and security (Fars, February 14). During the discussions in Sochi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proclaimed that U.S. presence in Syria must end. He accused the United States and Israel of supporting ISIS in Syria and Iraq and called on the international community to respond to Israel’s “illegal intervention” in Syria. Rouhani also pointed to the joint goals of Russia, Iran and Turkey: the fight against terrorism, returning stability and security to Syria, formulation of a new constitution and bolstering the Syrian government (Tasnim, February 14).
During his visit to Russia, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Mohammad Baqeri, called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Syria. In a meeting with the Turkish and Russian ministers of defense, Baqeri stated that the three countries are interested in a quick withdrawal of the forces present in Syria, without coordination with the legitimate government in Damascus. Baqeri lambasted Israel strikes in Syria, claiming that they harm efforts to return security and stability to the country (ISNA, February 14).
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also referred to Israel’s ongoing activities in Syria, warning that it may lead to the outbreak of a war between Iran and Israel. In a conversation with journalists after a speech he delivered at the Munich Security Conference, Zarif argued that Israel is looking to start a war, and that the likelihood for the outbreak of a war will increase if Europe continues to ignore Israeli violations of international law (Mehr, February 17).
Iran’s Ambassador to Damascus, Javad Torkabadi, stated that Iran will be the first country to contribute to Syria’s reconstruction. At an event held at the Iranian embassy to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the ambassador remarked on the historical relationship between the two countries and proclaimed that Iran will continue to support the Syrian people and its leadership until the restoration of all of Syria’s land to the control of the government. The Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faysal Mikdad, stated during the event that the cooperation between Iran and Syria allows to additional victories against terrorism and its supporters (SANA, February 11).
During a hearing in the Syria parliament, which dealt with the telecommunication infrastructure in the country, the Syrian Minister of Communications and Technology, Iyad al-Khatib, reported that Syria is currently in negotiations with an Iranian cellular network operator to establish a third telecommunications network in the country. The minister addressed the need to improve the communications and internet infrastructure in Syria, and commented that the details on the negotiations with the Iranian operator will be provided in the near future (IRNA, February 19). It was reported in 2017 that Iranian telecommunications companies won a license to operate a third cellular network in Syria, as part of agreements to expand economic cooperation between the two countries.
On February 10, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrived for a two-day visit in Lebanon. Zarif met Lebanese President, Michel Aoun; Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri; Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gebran Bassil; Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah; and representatives of Lebanese parties. Upon arrival in Beirut, Zarif stated that Iran is willing to cooperate with Lebanon on all matters. This is Zarif’s first visit to Lebanon since the formation of the new government in Beirut.
During his visit, Zarif also met with representatives of the Palestinian organizations in Lebanon, including members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the meeting, Zarif emphasized Iran’s support for the Palestinians in their struggle against “the Zionist regime.” He argued that Israel’s aggressive policies against Palestine and other countries, with the support of the United States, poses a great threat to the region. The representatives of the Palestinian organizations, chief among them the Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhla, expressed their appreciation for Iran’s continuous support for the Palestinians (IRNA, February 10).
In Zarif’s meeting with Nasrallah, which was held in the presence of Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Jalal Firouznia, the two discussed political developments in Lebanon and the region. Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs emphasized the support of his country for Lebanon and the “Resistance” and commented that Iran is willing to cooperate with Lebanon on all issues on the table. Nasrallah expressed his appreciation of Iran for “the assistance to Lebanon, Palestine and the Resistance,” and for their struggle against Israel and ISIS. Nasarallah stated that he is confident that the Islamic Republic will maintain this support despite the plots and pressure exerted on it (Tasnim, February 11). On the eve of Zarif’s visit to Beirut, Nasrallah stated in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that he is willing to bring air defense systems from Iran for the use of the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria reported (February 16), that due to the effect of the economic sanctions on Iran, Hezbollah has had to cut in half the February salaries of its members, and half the transfer of monthly stipends. The report was not confirmed by additional sources.
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
The Azad University, the network of private Iranian universities and colleges, signed a cooperation concerning scientific and cultural cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The agreement was signed in mid-February, during the visit of the president of the university, Mohammad Mehdi Tehranchi, to Baghdad. The agreement is intended to facilitate the expansion of scientific and academic cooperation between the two countries, including by conducting joint research and conferences (Tasnim, February 13). Last year, Azad University expanded is activities to Syria and announced its intention to establish branches across that country.
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared at a conference in Tehran marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that Iran is proud to be under pressure for its support for Palestine (Tasnim, February 13). In response to his statement, two Iranian soccer stars criticized the foreign minister. In posts published on their Instagram accounts (February 14), Voria Ghafouri and Ali Karimi argued that the simple citizens are the ones under pressure. Following this criticism, Ghafouri was summoned by the Iranian Ministry of Sports.