Additional reports about the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) among pro-Iranian militiamen operating in Syria. Syrian opposition sources reported that several dozens of Shi’ite militiamen were transferred to medical care in the Damascus area after becoming infected with the virus.
The transfer of medical equipment from China to Iran through Iranian freighters previously used for shipping weaponry from Iran to Syria continues. At the same time, Iranian flights from Tehran to Damascus have not stopped. These flights likely contain equipment and weaponry.
Iran is closely following reports about possibly American preparations for significant military action against the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq. In light of these reports, senior Iranian officials, including the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces and the secretary of the Expediency Council warned the United States against carrying out such action and called on the United States to withdraw from Iraq.
Against the backdrop of escalating tensions in Iraq and ongoing talks concerning the formation of a new government in Baghdad, the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, conducted a visit to Baghdad. According to reports in Arab media, Qa’ani met with the leaders of the Shi’ite factions in the Iraqi parliament in an effort to find an agreed-upon candidate for the role of prime minister of Iraq, due to Iran’s opposition to the prime minister-designate, Adnan al-Zurfi.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced the imposition of new sanctions against 20 entities and organizations in Iraq and Iraq, due to their involvement in financing the IRGC and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
The Lebanese newspaper al-Modon reported (March 23) based on the claims of Abd a-Salam Abd a-Razzaq, a former commander in the Zenki Movement, a Syrian rebel group, that Russia imposed a policy of distancing the forces in the Syrian Army, especially those supported by it, from the pro-Iranian militias operating in the country, due to fears about the spread of COVID-19 among the Syrian Army and Russian forces operating in the country. The former commander stated that bases of the 5th Corps and Division 25, which are supported by Russia, were separated from outposts of the Shi’ite militias, following reports about the outbreak of the virus. The credibility of this report is unclear.
At the same time, Syrian opposition sources continue to report about the spread of COVID-19 among fighters in the ranks of the Shi’ite militias. According to these reports, several dozens of fighters in the pro-Iranian militias were taken to medical care in the area of Damascus after contracting the virus (Orient News, March 28). Doctors in the Tishreen hospital in Damascus also reported recently that several fighters in the ranks of the Shi’ite militias were treated in this military hospital after developing symptoms of COVID-19 (Syria in Context, March 17).
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Iranian regime continues to deploy freighter jets that were once used to transfer weaponry from Iran to Syria, to move medical equipment from China to Iran. Jets of the Fars Qeshm Air that were used previously to carry out cargo shipments from Iran to Syria, transferred in the second half of March medical equipment from Xinjiang in China to Iran (AkhbarAlaan.net, March 26). However, Iranian flights to Damascus have not stopped, likely carrying materiel (the Twitter account @obretix, based on flight radars, March 27).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
Iranian media highlighted reporting on possible U.S. preparations for significant military action against pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq. The New York Times reported (March 27), that the U.S. Department of Defense ordered its military command to prepare for attacking the Shi’ite militia Kataeb Hezbollah following the launch of rockets, carried out by the militia against bases in Iraq hosting American troops. The report described disagreements among U.S. military leadership concerning the appropriate response to the latest escalation in Iraq. The newspaper al-Quds al-Araby reported (March 30), that the pro-Iranian militia began adopting precautionary measures due to fears of incoming U.S. strikes. According to this report, Kataeb Hezbollah reduced the number of deployed fighters, removed some of their weaponry and switched to using unmarked cars. The newspaper quoted a senior Iraqi military intelligence official who claimed that some of the militiamen withdrew from their bases and that the leadership of the Shi’ite militias called on its members to vacate checkpoints they had previously occupied.
Against the backdrop of reports about a possible American attack against the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the Commander of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, warned the United States against such action. In a television interview on the occasion of IRGC Day, Salami stated that the only option the Americans have is to leave the region, since their presence in the region harms them and the peoples in the Middle East. According to him, the Americans thought that killing Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis will put out the flame of the “torch of resistance” and that they can change the political and security conditions in the region, but in fact, the assassination increased the pressure on the United States to withdraw from Iraq. Salami called on the leaders of the United States to focus on ensuring the wellbeing of their own citizens who are dying of COVID-19 in New York and other American states, instead of thinking about “Hollywood scenarios” and killing citizens in Iraq (Defa’ Press, March 28).
The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Mohammad Baqeri, stated that Iran is watching closely the movement of American forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. He asserted that the attacks carried out against American bases in Iraq in recent weeks are “a natural reaction” on the part of the people and resistance forces in Iraq, in response to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and have nothing to do with Iran. Baqeri threatened the United States, stating that even the slightest threat to Iran’s security will be met with an overwhelming response (Tasnim, April 2).
The Secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezaei, also addressed the possibility of an American military strike in Iraq and claimed that any military action in Iraq is akin to an attack by ISIS, and that there is no difference between the aggression carried out by a state or a militant organization. In a tweet on his Twitter account (March 31), Rezaei wrote that all Americans must leave Iraq, and if they do not do so, the Iraqi people will force them to do so.
The Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Speaker of the Majlis, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, posted on his Twitter account (March 31), that the American military moves in Iraq and the region may be a form of psychological warfare. He warned that if the United States makes another military mistake, this will bring about its rapid departure from the region and the end of Zionism.
The Speaker of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. He claimed that U.S. military actions in Iraq are a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and contravene the official and public demand of the government, the parliament, and the Iraqi people, and may escalate the situation in the region (Tasnim, April 1).
The Senior Security Adviser of the Supreme Leader of Iran and former Commander of the IRGC, Seyyed Yahya Rahim Safavi, also addressed the developments in Iraq. In a commentary published by the Tasnim and Fars news agencies, which are affiliated with the IRGC, he warned (April 1), that if the United States ignores the demand of the Iraqi parliament to remove its forces from Iraq, it will have to face the consequences for its illegal presence in Iraq. He stated that the economic and political situation in the United States, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and upcoming presidential elections, are hindering its ability to oversee a military campaign in the region. Safavi called on the U.S. government and military leaders to examine the repercussions of any action they decide to take, and warned that the Iraqi people, the Iraqi youth and resistance groups are willing to act against any American military action.
In light of growing tensions in Iraq and the ongoing talks concerning the formation of a new government in Baghdad, Arab media outlets reported that a senior Iranian delegation, led by the Commander of the Qods Force of the IRGC, Esmail Qa’ani, arrived in Baghdad in recent days. According to several reports, Qa’ani met with the heads of the Shi’ite blocs in the Iraqi parliament, Hadi al-Ameri, Nouri al-Maliki and Omar al-Hakim, in an effort to find an alternative compromise candidate for the Iraqi premiership, due to the opposition of some Iraqi Shi’ite factions and Iran to the nomination of Adnan al-Zurfi for prime minister (al-Marsad news, March 31; al-Akhbar, April 1). The reports about Qa’ani’s visit to Iraq were reported in Iranian media, likely to counter the rumors spread about Qa’ani’s alleged assassination in an attack on Syria on the night of March 31, which was attributed to Israel.
On March 21, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, visited the Iraqi border crossing of Zurbatiyah and the Iranian border crossing of Mehran, which link the two countries. The ambassador met with officials in charge of the operation of the crossings and discussed ways to facilitate the movement of goods and people between Iran and Iraq, considering the COVID-19 outbreak. Accompanying Masjedi on the visit was Mostafa Moradian, the Iranian Military Attaché to Baghdad. In addition, Masjedi met with Qasem Soleimani Dashtaki, the Governor of Ilam Province, and with Houshang Bazvand, the Governor of Kermanshah Province in western Iran, and stressed the need to bolster economic cooperation between Iran and Iraq through the border crossings located in those provinces. In the meeting the governor of the Kermanshah province, the ambassador stated that the main role of the Iranian embassy in Baghdad is expanding ties, economic cooperation and trade between the two countries. He remarked that the provinces bordering on the Iran-Iraq border have an important role in the economic ties with Iraq. He also expressed hope that the border crossings will be reopened and return to regular operation following the end of the COVID-19 crisis (IRNA, March 21-22).
The U.S. Treasury Department announced (March 26) the imposition of new sanctions on 20 entities and organizations in Iran and Iraq, which were involved, according to the U.S. government, in exploiting Iraq’s economy to finance the IRGC and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq, including Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaeb ahl al-Haqq. These entities were involved in, among other things, smuggling materiel from Iraq to Yemen; money laundering; smuggling Iranian oil; selling Iranian oil to the Syrian regime; promoting Iranian propaganda in Iraq; and transferring donations collected from the public to the Qods Force, under the guise of donations to religious institutions. One of the sanctioned bodies in the Headquarters for Restoration of Holy Sites in Iraq, which is operated by senior Qods Force officials in Iran and Iraq. According to the U.S. government, Iran is operating a network of companies, whose goal is to fundraise for its terrorist activities (Reuters, March 26).
The Prime Minister designate in Iraq, Adnan al-Zurfi, called on the international community to assist Iran in the effort to deal with the coronavirus. In a post on his Twitter account (March 29), al-Zurfi wrote that assistance with Iran will help prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe” harming the Iranian people, and that the international community should assist Iran by lifting or easing the sanctions, as well as offering medical assistance. He stated that the situation in Iran will have health and security implications on Iraq, due to the long border between the two countries and the ties between them.
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
The Spokesman of Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhri, harshly condemned the continued imposition of American sanctions against Iran, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abu Zuhri claimed that maintaining the sanctions is worsening the outbreak of the virus and places public health in Iran under great risk. He labeled the sanctions “a crime against humanity” and called for their removal, to allow Iran to deal with the challenges stemming from the outbreak of the virus (al-Ahed, March 27). Prior to this, the Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Ismail Hanniyeh, also urged the lifting of American sanctions in readout of a phone call he held with the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif (Mehr, March 21).