Iranian and Syrian cargo planes continue to make frequent flights between Damascus and Tehran. Three Iranian cargo planes landed in the Damascus International Airport in recent days, and an Iranian cargo plane took off from Tehran and landed at the Hmeimim Military Airport near Lattakia.
In early February, the Iraqi minister of foreign affairs arrived for a visit in Tehran during which he met with senior Iranian officials, chief among them the president, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the Iranian minister of foreign affairs. The senior Iranian officials stressed the need to implement the agreements reached between Iran and Iraq concerning expanding their cooperation, and called for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the region.
In late January, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Jeanine Antoinette Plasschaert, visited Tehran and met with senior Iranian officials, including the senior adviser on international affairs to the supreme leader of Iran, and the special adviser to the speaker of the Majlis. Both officials stressed the close-knit relationship between Tehran and Baghdad and the importance of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
While challenges continue to plague efforts to implement agreements for expanding cooperation between Iran, Syria and Iraq, economic activity between them is keeping apace. The members of the board of governors of the Joint Syrian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce met in Damascus with the Syrian prime minister and discussed ways to expand trade between the two countries, and remove barriers hindering the export of Iranian goods to Syria. Meanwhile, a senior official at the Wasit province in Iraq announced that the Iraqi government agreed to open a new border crossing between the two countries. In addition, the first deputy of the Iranian president declared that Iran is promoting cooperation with Iraq to expand the free trade area along the border shared by the two countries.
Last week, during his visit in Moscow, the Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, praised Iran’s support for the Palestinians. He remarked that Qasem Soleimani personally oversaw the transfer of missiles and many other types of weaponry to Gaza.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
Iranian and Syrian cargo planes continue to make frequent flights between Damascus and Tehran. Sources tracking the movement of aircrafts reported on January 28 that freighter plane, a Boeing 747 owned by Qeshm Fars Air, which is used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), landed at the Damascus International Airport. It returned to Tehran after unloading the cargo it was carrying. This plane was observed two days prior, and on February 3 as well, traversing the same route. On January 27, an additional cargo plane, operated by the Iranian aviation company, Caspian Airlines, was also identified flying from Tehran to Damascus. In parallel, aviation tracking sources reported about a Syrian cargo plane, an Ilyushin IL-76T, which took off from the Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran on February 1, and landed at the Military Airbase in Hmeimim near Lattakia. Another flight of the Ilyushin cargo plane was observed on February 3, again departing from Tehran and landing in Hmeimim.
On January 25, the members of the Board of Governors of the Joint Syrian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce met with the Syrian Prime Minister, Hussein Arnous, and discussed ways to expand the commercial cooperation between the two countries, and removing barriers hindering the export of Iranian goods to Syria. In addition, the members of the Chamber of Commerce discussed establishing a joint Iranian-Syrian bank to finance business transactions between the two countries. The Syrian prime minister stressed the need to bolster economic ties with Iran, and importance of increasing joint investments for developing towns, industrial zones, and reconstructing factories destroyed during the Syrian civil war. Arnous remarked that his government is prepared to assist the Chamber of Commerce in organizing trade fairs and advancing agreements concerning commercial cooperation, which would assist both countries in dealing with the international sanctions imposed on them (IRNA, January 26).
Iran, Russia and Turkey published a joint statement expressing their willingness to continue to assist the ongoing work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The three countries taking part in the Astana Process concerning the settlement of the war in Syria published a statement at the end of deliberations, held on the margins of the gathering of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva. In the statement, the three countries stressed their support for the national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria. In mid-February, the representatives of the three countries are set to meet again in Sochi for another round of talks as part of the Astana Process (Fars, January 29).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
On February 3, the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fuad Hussein, arrived for a visit in Tehran. During the visit, the foreign minister met with senior Iranian officials, chief among them President Hasan Rouhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, and the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif. In his meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister, Shamkhani called for accelerating the implementation of agreements signed between the two countries concerning expansion of cooperation between them in various spheres. He remarked that the main actor responsible for instability in the region is the presence of foreign forces, and particularly American forces, and stressed the need to quickly implement the law, passed by the Iraqi parliament, which demanded the removal of American military forces from the country. The Iraqi minister of foreign affairs stated in the meeting that the expansion of cooperation with Iran and accelerating the implementation of joint economic projects is a top priority for Iraqi foreign policy (IRNA, February 3).
President Rouhani addressed in his meeting with the Iraqi minister of foreign affairs the expanding economic cooperation between the two countries, stating that the economies of Iran and Iraq can complement each other, and that the trade volume can be increased to a total of $20 billion annually. The president stressed that Iran opposes all foreign involvement in Iraq’s domestic affairs and supports Iraq’s role in regional political and security alliances. He expressed hope that the new administration in Washington will reach the conclusion that American presence in the region harms its security and will re-examine the policies of the United States (IRNA, February 3).
The former Iranian ambassador to Kuwait and commentator on Iraqi affairs and the Middle East, Reza Mirabian, assessed in an interview to the Iranian news agency ILNA (February 3), that the visit of the Iraqi foreign minister to Tehran is related to developments that occurred in recent months in Iraq, and the transition to the new administration in the United States. He remarked that the latest developments and upcoming elections in Iraq require additional consultation between the two countries. Mirabian added that Iraq hopes to play a role of a mediator and actor reducing tensions between Iran and the United States following the succession in Washington. He asserted that Iraq wishes to extricate itself from the arena of contestation between Iran and the United States.
On January 31, the Senior Adviser on International Affairs to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali-Akbar Velayati, met with the Special Representative to Iraq of the UN Secretary General, Jeanine Antoinette Plasschaert, and remarked that Iran is optimistic about Iraq’s future and that relations between Iraq and Iran are bound to tighten. Velayati stressed the need to prevent foreign interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, asserting that Iraq’s destiny needs to be determined by the Iraqi people and its government. He added that Iran is willing to offer any assistance to Iraq, as it has done in the past, during the campaign against ISIS. In the meeting, the two also discussed developments in the region (Mehr, January 31).
During her visit to Tehran, the UN envoy to Iraq also met with the Special Adviser on International Affairs to the Speaker of the Majlis, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who stressed to her the deep and strategic ties between Iran and Iraq. Abdollahian remarked that the efforts of some countries, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, who use terrorism and incite instability, are some of the causes for the insecurity in Iraq and the region as a whole. The senior adviser to the speaker of the Majlis also stated that Iran supports Iraq’s security and stability, sees Iraq’s security as a necessary condition for its own security, and warns those who are attempting to re-ignite terrorism in Iraq, Syria and the region to halt their schemes (Mehr, February 1).
The website Middle East News reported (February 2) that the Commander of the Iraqi pro-Iranian militia, Asaeb al-Haqq, Qaiz al-Khazali, arrived for a visit in Tehran on February 1. According to this report, al-Khazali arrived in Iran on a flight of the Iranian airline Qeshm Air, departing from the city of Najaf in Iraq.
A member of the board of governors of the Joint Iranian-Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, Seyyed Hamid Hosseini, stated in an interview to the state-run Iranian newspaper Iran (February 2), that some of the Iraqi debts to Iran for the export of electricity and gas have been paid, but not in full. He remarked that some of the Iraqi debt was paid to private Iranian companies that operate in Iraq and require Iraqi dinars to keep their operations running. Some of the debts to Iran’s national gas company will be paid, according to him, through barter of Iraqi goods imported by Iran. Hosseini’s remarks followed a visit of the Iranian Minister of Energy, Reza Ardakinyan, to Baghdad in late December 2020. During that visit, an agreement was reached between the two countries regarding the repayment of the Iraqi debt to Iran.
Hosseini also stated in an interview to Iran that Iraq faces two central problems in its economic ties with Iran: the economic sanctions placed on Iran, and the economic sanctions placed on Iraq, which force Iraq to transfer a share of its oil revenues through the United States, to pay for the cost of the war in Iraq and its international debts, which limits its ability to freely conclude international commercial ties.
The directorate of Wasit province in western Iraq informed Iran about the Iraqi government’s agreement to open a new border crossing connecting the two countries in that province. The opening of the al-Shahabi Crossing is intended to reduce overcrowding at the Mehran Crossing in Ilam province in western Iran, which is considered the central border crossing for the movement of private vehicles, trucks carrying goods, and pilgrims between Iran and Iraq. A senior official at the Wasit governorate directorate stated that the opening of the new crossing requires receiving a final approval of the relevant authorities in Iraq and Iran, and completing security arrangements, due to the possibility of floods in the area. He remarked that the new border crossing is closer to the Shia holy cities in Iraq (Najaf and Karbala) and that its opening will be a new source of revenue for Wasit province (IRNA, January 30).
The First Deputy of the Iranian President, Eshaq Jahangiri, stated that Iran is promoting the expansion of the joint free trade zone of Arvand along the Iran-Iraq border on the shores of the Persian Gulf. He mentioned that there are two plans to expand the work in the zone. One of them involves digging in the Arvand River, which would allow to expand the movement of commercial vessels. The second plan is to lay the railway between Shalamcheh in western Iran to Basra, whose completion would facilitate the movement of goods from Iran, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea (Tasnim, January 30). It should be mentioned that a memorandum of understanding between Iran and Iraq concerning laying down a railway stretching 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the city of Shalamcheh to Basra was signed during a meeting between the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and the Prime Minister of Iraq at the time, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in March 2019. It appears that no progress has been made in the implementation of the plan to date.
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
In an interview to Russian media outlets during his visit to Moscow last week, the Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, praised Iran’s support to the Palestinians, and specifically, the role played by Qasem Soleimani, the former Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force. Al-Nakhleh stated that Soleimani was at the helm of the fighters for Palestine, and defended Jerusalem and Palestinian land. He reiterated that Soleimani personally oversaw the transfer of missiles that were launched at Israel, and large quantities of various weapons that were provided to the Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip (Tasnim, February 2).