Spotlight on Iran

March 21, 2021 – April 4, 2021 Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt
The meeting between the Iraqi minister of labor and social services and the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad. Source: IRNA, March 26 2021

The meeting between the Iraqi minister of labor and social services and the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad. Source: IRNA, March 26 2021

The Iranian Ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Irlu. (IRNA, March 23 2021)

The Iranian Ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Irlu. (IRNA, March 23 2021)

Overview
  • The activity of Iran and its proxies in eastern Syria: fighters of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, which operates under the guidance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Syria held training maneuvers in southeastern Syria. In Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, IRGC personnel distributed food baskets to families of fighters killed in the ranks of the pro-Iranian militias operating in the region.
  • An investigation of Agence France-Presse revealed that the control of Shia pro-Iranian militias of Iraq’s border crossings has allowed them to funnel billions of dollars in customs duties, which ought to have been collected by the State, to their own coffers, to political parties connected to them and corrupt officials. The investigation showed that in addition to the official Iraqi import system, there is a parallel system operating in the land and maritime crossings between Iran and Iraq, many of which are under the control of militias close to Iran.
  • In the economic sphere: the head of the Joint Iranian-Syrian Chamber of Commerce estimated that the volume of trade between Iran and Syria will rise in the coming year. He admitted, however, that there are still problems hindering expanding the economic cooperation between the two countries, including banking-related and finance-related issues, as well as the absence of land crossings directly linking the two countries. Meanwhile, the spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Energy stated that his county is interested in expanding the import of gas from Iran, to ensure the electricity supply in the country ahead of the summer. He mentioned that the issue of the Iraqi debt to Iran is in the process of being resolved.
  • The Iranian ambassador to Yemen rejected the Saudi peace proposal for resolving the crisis in Yemen and declared that any real initiative to end the war will entail lifting the siege placed on Yemen, withdrawing of Saudi armed forces, and an end to Saudi Arabia’s support for its “mercenaries” in the country.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
  • The pro-Syrian opposition outlet, Euphrates Post, reported (March 21) that the Nasr Center, which is operated by the IRGC in the city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, distributed food baskets to the families of fighters killed in the ranks of the pro-Iranian militias in the governorate of Deir Ezzor.
The food basket distribution by the IRGC to families in Deir Ezzor of fighters killed in the ranks of pro-Iranian militias. (Euphrates Post, March 21)
The food basket distribution by the IRGC to families in Deir Ezzor of fighters killed in the ranks of pro-Iranian militias. (Euphrates Post, March 21)
  • In late March, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan militia operating under IRGC guidance in Syria, conducted training maneuvers in southeastern Syria on the occasion of 15th of the month of Shaaban, the birthday of the 12th Imam according to Shia tradition (Telegram channel of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, March 29 2021)

The training maneuver of the IRGC-backed Fatemiyoun Brigade in southeastern Syria. (Telegram channel of the Brigade, March 29 2021)
The training maneuver of the IRGC-backed Fatemiyoun Brigade in southeastern Syria.
(Telegram channel of the Brigade, March 29 2021)

  • In an interview to the Iranian news agency ILNA, the Head of the Joint Iranian-Syrian Chamber of Commerce, Kivan Kashefi, estimated that the volume of trade between Iran and Syria will increase in the coming Iranian year (March 2021 – March 2022). He remarked that the volume of trade between the two countries in the prior year according to the Persian calendar stands at 170 – 180 million dollars, and the goal is to expand this to 500 million dollars annually. Kashefi stated that over the past year, about ten commercial delegations of Syrian and Iranian businesspeople and officials carried out visits in Iran and Syria, respectively. In addition, two joint trade shows were held, and the Iranian trade center was established in Damascus, with participation from over 30 companies. He stressed, however, that problems remain to be solved concerning realizing financial deals between the two countries and added that the absence of shared borders makes ground transport of goods and trade more cumbersome.
  • In the 5th Brussels Donor Conference, held online on March 29-30, the Iranian Ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, Gholam-Hossein Dehgani, stated that the international community has no real desire to solve the crisis in Syria in accordance with international rights, and particularly the respect to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. He claimed that since the start of the crisis, Iran supported a political solution and that the cooperation between Iran, Russia and Turkey as part of the Astana Process is intended to achieve such a solution. The Iranian ambassador condemned the sanctions placed on the Syrian regime, stating that they contravene international rights and only exacerbate the suffering of the Syrian people (Fars, March 31). The Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhan, assailed during his interview at the conference the Iranian intervention in Syria, and called on Tehran to end its effort to promote “demographic and sectarian change in Syria” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq and Yemen
  • An investigation published by the French news agency AFP, published on March 29, showed that the control exercised by Shia pro-Iranian militias over Iraq’s border crossings allows them to funnel billions of dollars intended to state coffers to themselves, political parties linked to them and corrupt officials. The investigation, which relied on multiple interviews with government officials, employees at ports and border crossings and importers, indicated that in addition to the official Iraqi import system, a parallel system exists in the land and maritime crossings between Iran and Iraq, many of which are under the control of Iraqi militias affiliated with the IRGC. The members of the militias, their allies or their relatives serve as employees in the border crossings, as supervisors or policemen who take bribes from importers who wish to bypass the official import process, or receive significant discounts in the payment of customs. The militia members at times resort to death threats to prevent customs employees from disobeying them. In some cases, the militias control entire trade sectors such as the trade in cigarettes. Despite the efforts of the central government in Baghdad to tackle the phenomenon, for example by conducting operations to capture shipments passing illegally through the border crossings, they have not been successful in significantly reducing the volume of the illicit imports. This failure stems, in part, from the involvement of the police itself in the illicit smuggling and surrounding corruption.
  • On March 25, the Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, met with the Iraqi Minister of Labor and Social Services, Adel al-Rikabi, and discussed bilateral relations. The Iraqi minister expressed willingness to sign a memorandum of understanding with his Iranian counterpart, particularly concerning cooperation in the field of instruction and exchange of expertise between workers (IRNA, March 26).
  • The Spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Energy, Ahmed al-Ebadi, stated that his country is interested in increasing the volume of gas import from Iran. He mentioned that the import of gas from Iran to Iraq decreased from 50 million cubic feet per day to 22 million due to the Iraqi debt to Iran. He expressed hope that Iran will increase the export of gas to Iraq to ensure Iraq’s electricity supply during the summer season. Al-Ebadi also stated that the matter of the Iraqi debt to Iran is in the process of being solved (IRNA, March 30). In early March, the President of Iran, Hasan Rouhani, spoke with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kazimi, and called on him to immediately release the Iranian funds frozen in Iraqi banks due to Western sanctions; these funds are part of the debts of the Iraqi government to Iran for imported gas and electricity. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration extended by four months the waiver given to Iraq to import electricity and gas from Iran despite the sanctions (Arab News, March 30).
  • In response to the Saudi peace proposal to end the conflict in Yemen, the Iranian Ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Irlu, accused Saudi Arabia of seeking to maintain an endless war and continue the occupation and war crimes in Yemen. In a tweet on his Twitter account (March 23), Irlu argued that a real initiative to end the crisis in Yemen would entail a complete ceasefire, lifting of the blockade place on Yemen, ending the occupation, withdrawing Saudi armed forces, ending Saudi financial and military support to its “mercenaries,” and conducting an internal Yemeni dialogue, without foreign interference. Thus, the Iranian ambassador responded to the new peace proposal, recently presented by the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faysal bin Farhan, to end the war in Yemen.