Last week, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces arrived for a visit in Syria to take part in a joint anti-terrorism summit attended by Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi officials. During the visit, Bagheri met with his counterparts in Syria and Iraq and discussed increasing security cooperation between the three countries. He also visited the fronts in Albu Kamal, Deir Ezzor. Bagheri reiterated Iran’s official position that all foreign forces present in Syria without the invitation of its legitimate government will have to withdraw, sooner or later.
Syrian sources recently reported that following the visit of President Assad to Tehran, Iran and Syria agreed to form a Syrian team, headed by the executive director of the Lattakia Port, which will negotiate handing over management of the Lattakia Port or the container terminal within it to Iran. According to these reports, whose reliability is unclear, Assad’s visit to Iran and the agreements reached between Tehran and Damascus were not coordinated with Russia and caused displeasure in Moscow. Meanwhile, the Syrian charge d’affaires in Iran reported that the two countries are examining the possibility of removing all customs on consumer goods traded between Iran and Syria, as part of the push to expand economic cooperation between the two countries.
Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, conducted his first official visit in Baghdad, during which he met Iraqi government officials, public representatives and senior Shi’ite clerics. The central goal of the visit was to further cooperation between the two countries in a host of spheres. The president’s visit can be examined in the context of growing efforts by Tehran to expand its influence in Iraq, particularly in the economic sphere, and as a manifestation of the ongoing Iranian-American struggle for influence in the Iraqi arena. Iranian media presented the visit as a big success for Iran that proves Washington’s failure to block Iran’s influence in Iraq. However, it is unclear whether the agreements reached between the two countries concerning expansion of economic cooperation will actually materialize. In addition, Iraq refused Iran’s request to abrogate the requirement that Iranian citizens visiting Iraq obtain a pre-arrival visa. In addition, during the president’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the eminent Shi’ite cleric emphasized that Iraq needs to expand its relations with all its neighbors (by implication, not solely with Iran) and that foreign actors should not meddle in internal Iraqi affairs (by implication, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC).
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
In an interview to the Lebanese news website al-‘Ahed, the Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Javad Torkabadi, remarked that he believe that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will soon arrive for a visit in Syria. He stated that the leaderships of Iran and Syria maintain ongoing contact, and that the recent visit of President Assad to Tehran was highly successful (Tasnim, March 11).
On March 17, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Mohammad Bagheri, arrived for a visit in Syria at the helm of a high-ranking military delegation to participate in a summit of the joint anti-terrorism committee of Iraq, Iran and Syria. During the visit, the representatives of the three countries discussed military and security cooperation and increasing coordination between the them in the campaign against terrorism. In addition, Bagheri visited the fronts in Deir Ezzor and Albu Kamal specifically and met with fighters stationed there (Fars, March 17-18). Upon his arrival to Damascus, Bagheri declared that the foreign forces that entered Syria without coordination with its government will have to withdraw from it, sooner or later. He remarked that similarly to how Iran was invited by the official government, the presence of all other forces should be coordinated and approved by the Syrian government (Mehr, March 17).
On March 18, the military delegations from Iran and Iraq met with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the meeting, the sides discussed developments in Syria and ways to bolster security and military coordination between the three countries. During the meeting, Bagheri emphasized that the campaign against terrorism and the defense of Syria contribute to ensuring the security of Iran and Iraq (SANA, March 18).Aerial photographs of the Israeli intelligence company ISIS bolster the assessment that Iran is establishing a missile production site in the Syrian town of Safita, east of the Tartous city port. In the satellite photographs, the suspected site appears to have robust perimeter defense, including a fence surrounding the site. Inside, vehicles, three hangers and a new water tower are visible. The report argues that the buildup components and activity patterns in the compound and surrounding it increase the likelihoods that this is a missile production facility. However, at this stage, it is impossible to definitively determine that the site is Iranian.
In recent months, employees using buses and pick-up trucks were identified at the entry to the site and inside of the fenced compound, a pattern characteristic of military sites. The findings of the report bolster the assessment that the site is already operational and it as stages of development. No armored structures were identified inside the site for the production of missile engines or warheads. The report determined that similar patterns of construction could be observed in other sites with a similar purpose, for example the missile manufacturing facility in the city of Khojir in Iran (Ynet, March 13).
Syrian sources recently reported that following the visit of President Assad to Tehran, Iran and Syria agreed to form a Syrian team, headed by the executive director of the Lattakia Port, Amjad Suleiman, which will negotiate handing over management of the Lattakia Port or the container terminal within the port to Iran. According to these reports, which were published in the newspaper al-Arab and the website the Syrian Report, the Syrian team started its work, but it remains unclear whether it already held talks with Iranian representatives. The report, which was republished in Iranian media, also stated that Russia was displeased with Assad’s visit to Tehran, which was not coordinated with it (Fararu, March 16).
The Deputy Secretary General of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Mohammad Ali Zeyqami, called for expanding economic ties between Iran and Syria. In a meeting between members of the chamber of commerce and a delegation of Syrian businessmen held in Tehran, Zeyqami stated that with the conclusion of the civil war in Syria, it is time to bolster the economic ties between the two countries to reconstruct Syria. He called on both governments to facilitate the work of businesspeople and firms to expand economic cooperation and trade between Iran and Syria. The IRNA news agency reported that in the first nine months of the Iranian year, which starts on March 21, Iran exported to Syria goods worth $63.9 million in total, and imported goods worth $3.1 million in total (IRNA, March 11).
The Syrian charge d’affaires in Iran, Ali Sayyed Ahmad, who participated in the meeting between the business delegation from Syria and Iran reported that the two countries are currently examining the possibility of removing all customs on consumer goods traded between Iran and Syria. He also proposed to expand trade deals between the two countries by using the Iranian Rial and Syrian Pound. He stated that the economic cooperation between Iran and Syria is important but is insufficient and should be expanded (ISNA, March 11).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
On March 11, Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, arrived for a three-day visit in Iraq. During the visit, Rouhani met with senior Iraqi government officials, public representatives and senior Shi’ite clerics. In a joint press conference with the Iraqi President, Barham Salih, held upon arrival in Baghdad, Rouhani stated that Iraq can play a significant role in ensuring and promoting ties between the countries of the region. He stated that Iran sees great importance in maintaining Iraq’s security and stability and emphasized the opportunities to promote cooperation between Iran and Iraq in the spheres of trade, investment, industry, tourism, energy, transportation, banking and p environmental protection (Tasnim, March 11).
In the meeting between President Rouhani and Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the two leaders signed five memoranda of understanding between the two countries. One of them concerned laying down a 35-kilometer long railroad connecting the city of Shalamcheh in western Iran to Basra in southern Iraq. A second memorandum addressed easing the process of issuing visas to businesspeople and traders from both countries. The three other memoranda dealt with expanding cooperation in the spheres of oil, trade and health. In addition, the two countries agreed that Iraq would waive visa fees for Iranian citizens visiting Iraq, although Iraq refused Iran’s request to completely waive the requirement that Iranian citizens receive a visa before arrival (IRNA, March 11).
In a meeting with Falih al-Fayyad, the Iraqi National Security Adviser and the head of the committee overseeing the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), Rouhani stressed the crucial role of the militias in the campaign against terrorism and “bolstering national solidarity” in Iraq. In addition, Rouhani met with former Iraqi prime ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi, and stressed his commitment to expanding ties and cooperation between the two countries, based on mutual interests (Tasnim, March 12).
On the last day of the visit, Rouhani met with senior Shi’ite clerics in the city of Najaf, chief among them the preeminent religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Rouhani provided Sistani with an overview of the outcomes of his meetings with senior officials in Baghdad and the accomplishments of the visit. Sistani stated that he welcomes any development in expansion of ties between Iraq and its neighbors, based on mutual interests, respect of sovereignty and avoiding of meddling in internal affairs (Fars, March 13).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
The Commander of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared that Israel’s expansionist dreams to take over all territory between the Nile River to the Euphrates have been thwarted by the victory of the Islamic Revolution, adding that now all of Israel is within the range of Hezbollah’s missiles. He addressed the “Resistance” of the residents of Gaza, stating that the capabilities in the hands of the “Resistance Front” in the region stem from the successes of the Islamic Revolution (Fars, March 17).