In a major development, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, paid a visit to Tehran, the first of its kind since outbreak of the uprising and civil war in Syria in 2011. During the visit, Assad met with the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani. The leaders used the visit to express their commitment to maintain cooperation between the two countries in the post-civil war era in Syria. President Assad’s visit caused a political crisis in Tehran as Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced his resignation after stating that he was not informed of the visit. Zarif later retracted his resignation and was invited by President Assad for a visit in Damascus.
The senior adviser to the Iranian minister of foreign affairs acknowledged in a media interview that despite the cooperation and shared interests of Iran and Russia in Syria, the two countries disagree regarding Israel. The senior adviser expressed concern about the possibility that Israel will use its good relationship with Russia to “impose” its plan on Russia to thwart Iranian influence in Syria. The statement of the senior Iranian official reflects the ongoing concern in Tehran about Russia’s preference for a relationship with Israel at Iran’s expense following the conclusion of the civil war in Syria.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to expand its economic activity in Syria and Iraq. The deputy head of the Mass Construction Society of Iran announced that Iran will soon begin building 200,000 housing units in Syria. In Iraq, preparations are underway for the visit of Iranian President Rouhani in the country next week. Rouhani, who will visit Iraq for the first time since assuming his current position, will visit Baghdad at the helm of a high-ranking economic and trade delegation.
Iran strongly condemned the decision of the United Kingdom to list Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and outlaw it. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the UK’s decision ignores the significant popular support the organization enjoys in Lebanon. He added that the decision will not succeed in harming or weakening the organization of its determination to continue the struggle against “terrorism and Zionism.”
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
On February 25, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, arrived for a visit in Tehran. During the visit, the first of its kind since the outbreak of the uprising and civil war in Syria, Assad met senior Iranian regime officials, chief among them the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. In his meeting with Assad, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei stated that he sees Syria as Iran’s strategic depth and its proud of the assistance Iran has offered to Syria, a member of the “Resistance Axis.” He called Assad “a hero of the Arab world” and declared that Syria managed to withstand the large coalition of the United State, Europe and their regional allies and secure a victory. He stressed that the victories of the Syrian Army against terrorism are a sharp blow to the plots of the West in the region. Khamenei added that Iran will continue to stand by Syria as it has done in the past and wished the Syrian people success and health to Assad and his family. President Assad thanked the Supreme Leader of Iran for his country’s support to Syria and stated that the two countries should expand their economic ties (Tasnim, February 25).
In his meeting with Assad, President Rouhani stated that Iran is prepared to participate in Syria’s reconstruction and will stand by Damascus after the war concludes too. He mentioned that Iran, Turkey and Russia are all opposed to the presence of American troops in Syria (Fars, February 25). The Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, also took part in the meeting between Assad and Khamenei and Rouhani. In a conference held in the city of Qom, Soleimani labeled Assad’s visit to Tehran and his meeting with Khamenei as a “celebration of victory” (Fars, February 28).
The Deputy Commander of the Qods Force, Esamail Qa’ani, reported that President Assad was brought to Tehran by the Qods Force, with the full knowledge of President Rouhani, who did not informed the Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif (ISNA, March 6). Zarif, who did not attend Assad’s meetings in Tehran, filed his resignation as a result of the snub, but eventually decided to remain in his position. Shortly after retracting his resignation, Zarif spoke with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, and discussed regional developments, Syrian-Iranian relations and Assad’s visit to Tehran. Following the call, Syria’s ambassador to Tehran called Zarif and conveyed President Assad’s invitation to visit Damascus (Fars, February 27).
In a wide-ranging interview to the Iranian reformist daily E’temad (March 6), Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the Senior Adviser to Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that despite the cooperation and common interests of Iran and Russia in Syria and in other regional arenas, they disagree on other matters, including the approach toward Israel. He commented that Russia never stood by Iran on the question of Israel. As long as the struggle against “terrorists” in Syria who seek to overthrow the regime continues, Iran and Russia have overlapping interests, but if the situation in Syria turns to a conflict between Iran and Israel, the paths of Russia and Iran will diverge.
Referring to Iran’s policy toward Israel, Ansari declared that Iran’s policy on the matter is clear and public, and that is a refusal to acknowledge the existence of the “Zionist regime.” According to him, Israel fears the stabilization of Iranian influence in Syria, as had happened in Lebanon, and is therefore working to force its designs for Syria on other actors, Russia included, while exploiting the historical ties between Russia and Israel. Iran needs to adopt a wise policy that prevents Israeli designs from becoming Russia’s policy. According to him, Iran needs to work sensibly to increase its influence and advance its interests, but without paying too heavy a price for these efforts.
The Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, declared that Israel’s efforts to thwart Iran’s presence in Syria are useless. In a press conference in Tehran, Shamkhani stated that Iran pays no heed to the statements and travels of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which are aimed against Iran’s presence in Syria, adding that this presence will remain as long as the Syrian government is interested in it (Fars, March 3).
Five bodies of IRGC fighters who were killed in Syria have been discovered and identified. A statement published by the IRGC on February 27 (Sepah News) reported that a search team of the IRGC’s Qods Force managed to locate the bodies of the missing fighters and identify them through DNA tests. The statement did not include information on when the fighters were killed and under what circumstances, but based on examining the names of those killed, it appears that at least three of them were killed in the Khan Tuman battle in 2016.
The deputy head of the Mass Construction Society of Iran, Iraj Rahbar, declared that Iran will soon begin constructing 200,000 housing units in Syria, most of them in Damascus. He mentioned that during last month’s visit of Iran’s deputy president to Damascus, the two countries signed agreements on cooperation in the construction, tourism and agricultural sectors, including a memorandum of understanding concerning the construction of the housing units. He added that Saudi Arabia and Qatar also expressed willingness to building housing units in Syria, as part of the country’s reconstruction process, and have decided nine billion dollars for that purpose. Rahbar stated that he offered the Iranian government to establish branches of Iranian banks in Syria to facilitate the provision of the necessary capital for Iranian entrepreneurs to advance their businesses in Syria, as was done in Iraq (ISNA, February 24).
Bahram Qasemi, the Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lambasted the decision of the British government to list Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and outlaw it. Qasemi commented that the UK’s decision was taken at a time when Hezbollah enjoys a prominent social and public role and takes part in elections in Lebanon. The organization enjoys widespread popular support, as was evident in the election results, and the British decision ignores large swathes of the Lebanese public and the legal status of the organization in Lebanon, the spokesman argued. Qasemi added that Hezbollah plays a positive and effective role in protecting the territorial integrity of Lebanon and the struggle against terrorist groups, among them ISIS. He insisted that the wrongheaded decision of the United Kingdom will not be able to harm the organization or weaken its resolve to fight terrorism and Zionism in the region (IRNA, March 2).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, conducted an official visit to Iraq at the end of the February. During his meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the two discussed bilateral relations and developments in the region. Abdul-Mahdi told Araghchi that Iraq is prepared to establish a joint industrial zone with Iran (Fars, February 25).
On March 11, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to make his first visit to Iraq since assuming office. The purpose of the visit is to expand cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the financial and trade sectors. On the eve of the visit, Iraq’s President Barham Salih stated that Rouhani’s visit is important and that the relationship between the two countries is essential and serves Iraq’s interests. He commented that Iraq’s relations with Iran do not come at the expense of its relations with other countries and with the Arab world (Fars, March 5). Rouhani’s upcoming visit to Baghdad was also discussed in the meetings of Iraqi Speaker of Parliament, Muhammad al-Halbousi, with senior Iranian officials during his visit to Tehran on March 6 (Fars, March 6).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
On March 6, the heads of Palestinian factions in Syria met with the Iranian Ambassador to Damascus, Javad Torkabadi, and thanked him for Iran’s support for the Palestinians. They emphasized the need to continue to struggle to liberate Palestine and regain Palestinian rights, as well as the important of resisting Western powers, especially in light of the UK’s decision to outlaw Hezbollah. The Iranian ambassador stated during the meeting that the struggle of the Palestinian people is in and of itself a major historic victory (Fars, March 4).