Negotiations are continuing apace between Iran and Russia concerning the war in Syria: following the visit of the Iranian minister of foreign affairs to Moscow in late September, the Iranian ambassador met with the Russian deputy foreign minister and discussed developments in Syria. Meanwhile, the spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that a meeting between representatives of Iran, Russia and Turkey, as part of the Astana Talks, is set to be held by the end of October. The officials representing the three countries will likely be the respective deputy foreign ministers.
The bodies of eight fighters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who were killed in the vicinity of the town of Khan Touman southwest of Aleppo city, were identified as part of ongoing efforts of the IRGC in Syria to identify the location of dozens of Iranian fighters who have gone missing in action during the Syrian civil war.
Media sources in Iraq reported that the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, arrived for a visit in Baghdad and met with senior commanders of the Shia militias, as part of ongoing discussions between the Iraqi government, the Shia militias and the Iranian regime. The deliberations were held in recent weeks following a threat voiced by the United States, warning that it would shutter its embassy in Baghdad and act militarily against the Shia pro-Iranian militias. Meanwhile, the spokesman of the pro-Iranian Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah announced a conditional ceasefire, as part of which the militias will halt attacks on American targets in Iraq, to allow for setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American groups from Iraq. The statement of the Shia militias about a temporary ceasefire may indicate Iran’s desire to avoid an escalation with the United States in Iraq, at least until the presidential elections in the United States.
The governor of the Iranian Central Bank visited Baghdad and announced that the two countries reached an agreement concerning the release of Iranian funds, totaling in five billion US dollars, which have been frozen in accounts in Iraq due to U.S. sanctions. The funds will be used to purchase goods to be imported to Iran. The Central Bank governor, who previously visited Iraq in mid-June 2020, did not provide information regarding the timetable for the implementation of the agreement.
Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former Iranian President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a prominent reformist activist, made an extraordinary statement calling to reexamine her country’s policy toward Israel, for recognizing the regional and international reality, based on Iran’s national interests. As expected, her statement aroused harsh criticism from Iranian hardliners .
Iranian Involvement in Syria
The Step News Agency, aligned with the Syrian opposition, reported (October 10), that military reinforcements of the IRGC arrived at the Albu Kamal region, through the al-Qaem crossing connecting Syria to Iraq. The force included 25 armored vehicles, ten armored personnel carries, give trucks, communications equipment, and armored vehicles with heavy machine guns. According to the report, the force reached the Imam Ali base in south Albu Kamal. The report, whose veracity is unclear, alleged that Iranian forces prevented Syrian regime forces from approaching the reinforcements or taking their photos.
On October 12, the Iranian Ambassador to Russia, Kazem Jalali, met with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Vershinin, and discussed developments in Syria and the region and bilateral relations. During the meeting, the two discussed the situation in Idlib, the ongoing negotiations to settle the war in Syria, the issue of Syrian refugees, and Syria’s chemical weapons file. The two stressed the need for Moscow and Tehran to continue deliberating and cooperating with regards to developments in the region. Meanwhile, the Deputy Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saeed Khatibzadeh, stated during his weekly press conference that the Astana process concerning the settlement of the war in Syria is continuing apace, and that a meeting between the representatives of Iran, Russia and Turkey (probably deputy foreign ministers), is set to be held by the end of October, to discuss the situation in Idlib, east of the Euphrates, and the constitution (Fars, October 13).
The Iranian Deputy Minister of Trade and the Head of the Organization of Development of Trade, Hamid Zadboum, stated in an interview to Iranian Arabic-language television, al-Alam (October 4), that Iran wishes to play a role in the reconstruction of Iraq and Syria, and that Iranian companies that provide technical and engineering services are currently operating in both countries. He remarked that Iran sees the reconstruction of Iraq, Syria and any other Muslim country as a religious obligation, and that Iran is willing to assist any country in need to infrastructure-related assistance. Zadboum added that Iran wishes to be involved in projects concerning natural resource extraction and agriculture. He reported that Iran established its largest trade office in Damascus, and that Iranian companies are working in Iraq in the spheres of reconstruction, as well as building power station and paving roads. He also mentioned, at the same time, that Iranian activities in Iraq encounter difficulties, including delays in payments.
On October 11, the official in charge of fallen fighters in the ranks of the IRGC, Abolqasem Sharifi, reported that the bodies of eight IRGC fighters, killed in the area of Khan Touman southwest of Aleppo city, were tracked and identified through DNA tests. He mentioned that the bodies were located by an IRGC investigative team, which operated in the area for several months, and were returned to Iran (ILNA, October 11).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
Iraqi media outlets reported (October 9) that the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, arrived for a visit in Baghdad and met with senior commanders of the Shia militias. Iranian sources did not confirm the reports about the visit. The visit was held at a time when the Iraqi government, the Shia Iraqi militias and the Iranian regime are conducting talks following a warning, issued by the United States, which threatened to shutter its embassy in Baghdad and act militarily against the Shia pro-Iranian militias, due to ongoing attacks by the militias against American targets in Iraq. On October 10, following these deliberations, the official Spokesman of the pro-Iranian Shia militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, Ali al-Askari, announced that the “resistance” groups in Iraq agreed on a conditional ceasefire. As part of it, the militias will halt attacks on American targets in Iraq to allow the American forces to withdraw from the country. He warned, however, that the “resistance” will resume its military activity with all the tools at its disposal, unless a timetable is set for the pullout of American forces from Iraq (Tasnim, October 12).
On October 3, the Iraqi President, Barahm Salih, met with the Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, and discussed the latest developments in Iraq with him and bilateral relations. A statement, published by the Iraqi president after the meeting, conveyed that the two sides stressed their support for the steps taken by the Iraqi government to protect diplomatic missions in the country, and enforce the law. The two also stressed the need to reduce tensions in the region. Masjedi remarked in the meeting that Iran supports Iraq stability and strives to bolster its ties with Baghdad in various social and economic spheres (Mehr, October 4).
On October 12, the Governor of the Iranian Central Bank, Abdolnaser Hemmati, arrived for a visit in Baghdad, heading a mission of banking and trade officials, to discuss with senior Iraqi officials in the banking sector the release of Iranian funds frozen in Iraqi banks. The sums amount to several billion U.S. dollars, earned from Iranian import of gas and electricity to Iraq, which have been frozen by Iraqi banks due to the economic sanctions the United States placed on Iran. Tehran wishes to use those funds to buy goods whose purchase is not prohibited by the sanctions. At the end of his visit, Hemmati declared that an agreement was reached between Iran and the central and trade banks of Iraq concerning the unfreezing of Iranian funds, which will be used by Iran to purchase basic goods. He did not provide information on the timetable to implement the agreement. Hemmati mentioned that during his meeting with the Governor of the Iraqi Central Bank, Mustafa Ghalef Mukhif, and with the Governor of the Iraqi Trade Bank, Salem Jawab Abd al-Hadi Chalabi, the two sides discussed the trade relations between the two countries. Hemmati also met with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kazimi, who welcomed the agreement reached between the bank governors, and vowed to continuously monitor its implementation. Hemmati expressed hope that the agreement will allow expanding the economic and banking ties between the two countries (Mehr, October 12). During a press conference he held on October 14, Hemmati updated that the sum of money that would be unfrozen under the agreement amounts to about five billion U.S. dollars (Fars, October 14).
This is Hemmati’s second visit to Iraq in recent months. During his prior visit, in mid-June 2020, the Central Bank governor discussed with his Iraqi counterpart the possibility of creating a joint financial mechanism, which would allow Iran to use its funds in Iraq to import basic goods that are not covered by sanctions, such as food and medicine. In 2019, the central banks of both countries signed an agreement to bolster financial cooperation between the two countries.
The Iraqi Minister of Transportation, Hussein Bandar al-Shibli, announced the resumption of flights between Iran and Iraq, starting on October 12. The flights were resumed between Baghdad and Najaf to Tehran and Mashhad, while maintaining health precautions due to the COVID-19 outbreak (ISNA, October 11). All flights between Iraq and Iran were halted on September 25 due to the rise in the COVID-19 cases in Iran, and the efforts made by Iraqi authorities to prevent the arrival of Iranian pilgrims to the Arbaeen ceremonies in Iraq (the pilgrimage to Shia holy sites in Iraq to mark the end of 40 days of mourning for the death of the Shia Imam Hussein).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
In an extraordinary statement, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of the former Iranian President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, called for reassessing Iran’s official position toward Israel. In an interview to the reformist newspaper Arman-e Melli (October 6), most of which dealt with women’s rights in Iran, Hashemi was asked about her position concerning the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Hashemi is a well-known activist in Iran’s reformist camp and a harsh critic of the regime’s policies. Hashemi responded that it is impossible to ignore the fact that the “Zionist regime” occupied Palestinian lands and took control of Palestine with British support, with collaboration with some among the Palestinians, while relying on killing and oppression. However, she stressed that it is also impossible to ignore historical developments since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and that Iran’s policies should be adjusted to changes in the international arena. According to her, many countries were divided and were unified throughout history, and many changes occurred during wars or following peace agreements. Hashemi remarked that support for the Palestinians is important, but there is no difference between the oppression of Palestinians by Israel, to the oppression and killing of Muslims in Syria, China or Chechnya, carried out by regimes with whom Iran maintains a close relationship. She pointed to the good relationship between Iran and Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, despite the deep ideological divide between Iran and those regimes. According to Hashemi, it is impossible to ignore Israel’s presence in the Middle East, while Qatar and Oman, countries with whom Iran maintains friendly relations, also support the agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel is keen to normalize its relations with Muslim countries, and Iran’s position should be grounded in its national interests, and the need to defend the rights of the Iranian people and protect Iran’s national resources.
Unsurprisingly, Hashemi’s statement aroused harsh criticism from Iranian hardliners. The Adviser on International Affairs of the Speaker of the Majlis, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, lambasted Hashemi’s argument. Mentioning the reportage on Hashemi’s statement by the Israeli daily Israel Hayom, Abdollahian claimed that her statements about the “fake Israeli regime that threatens the peace and security of the region” are untrue and unwise, and rejoiced the “Zionist terrorists.” He added that Faezeh’s father, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, supported Palestine from an early age, and that she must retract her statement (Farda News, October 13).